“Words of Eternal Truth from the Evil Prophet Bilaam”
(updated and revised from Balak 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this 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 G-d has forbidden Bilaam to do so, and also because of the protective power of the unified Jewish nation. As Bilaam says in Numbers 23:8, מָה אֶקֹּב, לֹא קַבֹּה אֵ־ל, וּמָה אֶזְעֹם, לֹא זָעַם השׁם, “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 King Balak to no end. While Balak may be terribly disappointed with Bilaam’s words, for the Jewish people, Bilaam’s prophecies actually contain marvelous and enduring insights into the nature of our people. As Bilaam says, Numbers 23:9: הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב, “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. Until the year 2000, the State of Israel was the only nation that was not part of the United Nations Regional Group, and was, consequently, unable to forward candidates for election to various bodies of the General Assembly. 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 because reporters are kept in the dark, or ignore these “insignificant” stories. Yet, every little incident in Israel is front page news in the New York Times and in the world media.

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 23:10: מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב, וּמִסְפָּר אֶת רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵ־ל? “Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number even a quarter of Israel?” On the surface it would seem as if Bilaam is referring to the numerical abundance of the Jewish People. But, obviously, this is not so. Bilaam compares the Jewish People to dust. Even though we don’t see it or feel it, except when we sneeze, dust is all around. And, perhaps, that is exactly what Bilaam words intend to convey. Although, we Jews are small in number, the influence of the Jewish people is profound, way out of proportion to our numbers.

Why is the agenda of the United Nations so obsessed 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. Although this essay is well-known, now is as good a time as any, to review it and kvell.

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 way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

He has made a marvelous 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.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, June 27, 2021, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction on Tisha b’Av. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av, that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 17th and 18th.
Have a meaningful fast.