“A Nation that Dwells Alone”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balak, the king of Moab, retains the services of the renowned gentile prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people. Due to G-d’s intervention, Bilaam is unable to curse Israel and, to Balak’s great chagrin, Bilaam instead blesses the Jewish people.

Even in his first prophecy, Bilaam acknowledges that he is powerless to curse Israel, declaring in Numbers 23:8: “Mah eh’kov, loh ka’boh Kayl; ooh’mah ehz’ohm, loh zah’ahm Hashem,” How can I curse, if G-d has not cursed? How can I be angry, if G-d is not angry? Bilaam then discloses that he is helpless against Israel. After all, from their very origins, due to their loyalty to their forebears, the people of Israel are as firmly established as the rocks and the hills. Bilaam then famously exclaims, Numbers 23:9: “Hen ahm l’vah’dahd yish’kohn, ooh’vah’goyim loh yit’chah’shav,” Behold, a nation that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among other nations.

There are those who interpret this verse to mean that the Jewish people are never counted among the traditional number of 70 nations. There are 70 nations and the nation of Israel. According to tradition, while each of the 70 nations has its own angelic guide, the Jewish people are under the exclusive dominion of G-d. Therefore, it is inconceivable that any curse can have impact upon them.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that the phrase, “Israel is not reckoned among the nations,” means that, in the final judgment, Israel will not be annihilated along with the other nations. The Netziv (R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’amek Davar, 1817-1893) explains that when the Jewish people do not assimilate with the nations among whom they dwell, they will dwell in peace and with honor. However, if they do mix with the nations, they will lose all respect and dignity.

The prophecy of Bilaam, declaring that the Jewish people are a breed apart, has proven to be a very accurate portrayal of the Jewish people throughout its history, for better or for worse. It is as if the world is divided in two factions: the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people. One, a tiny group–the other, the overwhelming numbers of humankind.

Although the Jewish people are overwhelmed quantitatively, they hold their own qualitatively. Certainly, the People of Israel have had much experience in living physically apart, in ghettos, in the Pale of Settlement, excluded from feudal trade unions, and subject to constant anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the Jewish people have also lived spiritually apart, attempting to live as a holy people, offering their submission to G-d and His Torah. Having focused on education, they have successfully taught the world a new social order. They created schools and nurtured students to pursue knowledge as a sacred calling.

Although the doctrine of the chosenness of Israel has come under attack, especially in the last 200-300 years, looking at the agenda of the world, it is hard to argue that the Jewish people are not chosen, for one reason or another, for good or for bad. It seems as if the vast majority of the world’s agenda is focused on Israel. Every day, another crisis seems to arise.

Many Jews feel that the emphasis on Jewish exceptionalism is far too overstated and wish to assimilate out of its specialness. Even the State of Israel wants to be treated simply as a normal member of the community of nations. But, Bilaam’s doctrine apparently prevails. Israel remains apart from all the countries of the world.

There are those who argue that the concept of a nation that dwells alone is a very dangerous and harmful model. They maintain that it is unwise to inculcate Jewish youth with this paradigm, which implies that Jews are meant always to suffer. On the other hand, the nation that dwells alone is truly special, and that specialness is a great blessing and privilege.

When the nations of the world start judging Israel (the people and the nation) by the standards they expect of all other nations, then we are in trouble. The Jewish people should expect to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. We are a nation apart. We are intended to be different. We must be a more moral nation, more committed to good than any other people. If we lose that special status, we lose the magic of being Jewish.

We dare not allow that to happen.

May you be blessed.