The Strength of the Jewish People

Balak By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 19, 2013 / 5773

The opening of this week’s parashah centers around the desire of Balak, the king of Moav, to curse the Israelites as they make their way toward the Land of Israel. Unsatisfied with the magical powers resident among his own people, Balak turns to a Babylonian sorcerer by the name of Balaam. He makes numerous attempts to commission Balaam in this “sacred” endeavor, but Balaam, through his own volition and God’s will, proves incapable of uttering curses against the Israelites. Rather, Balaam ends up uttering praise and blessing over this determined people, declaring, “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Lord has not doomed? / As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations, / Who can count the dust of Jacob, Number the dust cloud of Israel?” (Num. 23:8–10). How may we understand Balaam’s prophetic pronouncement that “he sees them from the mountaintops” and that it is a people that “dwells apart”?

Yehudah Nachshoni explains,

Bilaam gazes upon Israel “from the mountain tops” (Numbers 23:9). According to Ibn Ezra, this means simply that he stood in a high place and watched Israel from there. Yet, other commentators, followed by Rashi, explain that Bilaam gazed down upon their roots and source—the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs—those responsible for the immortality of the Jewish people. Accordingly, Bilaam also saw the flow of Jewish history, stressing one fundamental point: “For they are a people that dwells alone and will not be counted among the nations.” According to Ibn Ezra, this means that just as the Jewish people were alone at that time, so would they remain forever. All other nations and peoples would blend together . . . Not so Israel—for they would forever remain alone and unique in their laws and Torah. No nation would have the power to overcome them . . . Another commentator known as HaEmek HaDavar holds that Bilaam was referring to the Exile period. Every other nation, under such trying circumstances, would have been destroyed . . . Yet, the Jewish people lives on. (Studies in the Weekly Parashah [trans. from the Hebrew],1105–1106)

Nachshoni directs our attention to a number of important perspectives. First, Balaam does not simply gaze upon the Israelites from a physical plane; he looks at them from a spiritual and historical angle as well. He “sees” the depth of their rich history and senses an even richer future. Second, Nachshoni highlights the persistence and strength of the Israelites and the Jewish People. While the trials that this nation sustained could have destroyed other nations, the Jewish People turned to their innate fortitude and persisted. Both Balaam and Nachshoni encourage us to look deeper into the soul of the Jewish nation. Alternative and creative ways of seeing as well persistence and spiritual strength have inspired us through history. May such forces continue to embolden our present and inspire our future.