“Words of Eternal Truth from the Evil Prophet Bilaam”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we encounter Balak, the King of Moab, soliciting the services of Bilaam, the Midianite prophet, to curse the Jewish People.

As is well known, Bilaam is unable to curse the Jewish People because of G-d’s intervention and the power of the unified Jewish nation. As Bilaam says in Numbers 23:8, “Mah ekov, loh kah’boh kay’l, u’mah ez’om, loh za’am Hashem.” How can I curse, if G-d has not cursed? How can I be angry if G-d is not angry?

Each of Bilaam’s prophecies turns into a blessing, which of course agitates Balak to no end. While Balak may be terribly disappointed with Bilaam’s words, for us, Bilaam’s prophecies actually contain amazing and enduring insights into the nature of the Jewish People. As Bilaam says, (Numbers 23:9): “Hayn am l’vad’dad yish’kon, u’vah’goyim loh yit’cha’shav.” Behold, Israel is a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations.

Let’s face reality. Historically, the Jewish People have always been measured by a different yardstick. They truly dwell alone. The State of Israel is the only nation in the world that is not part of a United Nations Regional Group, and is consequently unable to be seated on the Security Council. The nations of the world treat Israel with a double standard. No nation has ever been made to endure what Israel endures. Throughout the world, hundreds of thousands of people are murdered each year. People never learn of these atrocities. Reporters are kept in the dark. Yet, every little incident in Israel makes the front page of the New York Times and the major papers throughout the world.

Many of us are often dismayed by this cruel double standard. We need not be. It takes an enemy like Bilaam to open our eyes to behold the uniqueness of the Jewish People. This uniqueness is too often seen as a hardship, but it is frequently a blessing. Continuing his prophecy, Bilaam says in Numbers 23:9: “Mi mah’nah ah’far Yaakov, u’mis’par et ro’vah Yisrael?” Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number even a quarter of Israel? On the surface it would seem that Bilaam is talking about the numerical abundance of the Jewish People, but obviously this is not so. Bilaam compares the Jewish People to dust. After all, dust is all around us, even though we don’t see it or feel it, except when we sneeze. And perhaps that is exactly what Bilaam is saying. Although we are so small in number, the influence of the Jewish People is so significant and out of proportion.

Why is the agenda of the United Nations so heavily involved with the tiny State of Israel? It is, after all, only one little state among hundreds of countries. Why are the “Jews news?”

Perhaps, the uniqueness of the Jewish People was best captured by Mark Twain in his famous essay concerning the Jews. In the March 1898 edition of Harper’s Magazine, Twain wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

And so when you review this week’s parasha, don’t dismiss Bilaam’s words. They are insightful, filled with unique observations about the Jewish People. Analyze each phrase, study each word. Because the truths of Bilaam’s words are eternal truths.

May you be blessed.