“a people that dwells alone”
One of the most hauntingly accurate descriptions of the Jewish people comes from the mouth of a non-Jewish prophet and appears in this week’s Torah reading. Worried by the success of the Israelites in their battle against the Amorites, the Moabite king Balak summons the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people. But Balak’s plans turn sour when, instead of cursing the people, Balaam actually praises them.
Among the famous lines uttered by Balaam are these:
Indeed (‘hen’) this is a people that dwells alone And is not counted among the nations. (Numbers XXIIII:9)
Balak, the king is furious. “I summoned you to curse this people, and look you have praised them”, he complains. But is this prophetic statement about the isolated situation of the Jewish people really a blessing or a curse?
That the people of Israel are singled out for special treatment is a fact of life familiar to every Israeli diplomat. Within many of the institutions of the international community there is no precedent or parallel for the attention given to Israel, or the discrimination exercised against it. Excluded from regional groupings, subjected to reams of hostile resolutions, and placed under a scrutiny that seems to bear no proportion to its size or importance, one cannot help be struck by the accuracy of this three thousand-year-old prophecy: Israel truly seems to be “a people that dwells alone, and is not counted among the nations”.
But how should we relate to the unusual situation in which we find ourselves? Should we embrace it or fight against it? Is it an eternal fact of life to be accepted or a historical challenge that we should struggle to overcome? Attitudes to these questions underlie many of the ideological debates within Israeli society, from those who view the aim of the State as being to normalize the situation of the Jewish people as ‘a people like all others’ to those who see the challenge of Israel to reflect unique Jewish values as ‘a light to the nations’.
The attitudes of the commentators throughout the ages to this prophecy of Balaam’s reflect a variety of attitudes to the isolation of the Jewish people. Here are four different interpretations of Balaam’s prophecy, each suggesting a different approach:
Separateness as part of the natural order: The Midrash (Shemot Rabba) picks up on the curious Hebrew word ‘hen’ with which Balaam introduces this prophecy, and notes that it comprises the two Hebrew letters heh and nun . The Midrash points out that all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have pairs except for these two. In the first part of the alphabet, the letter aleph pairs with tet to make a total of 10, so bet pairs with chet to makes ten, so gimel with zayin makes ten, leaving heh alone. Similarly with the later letters, yod and tsadi make 100, as do lamed and ayin, and so on leaving the letter nun alone and unpartnered. Just as these two letters remain apart, concludes the Midrash so it is decreed that the Jewish people is destined to remain separate from the other nations.
Separateness as a reflection of antisemitism: Rashi, the classic 11th century French commentator sees the word ‘hen’ as deriving from the word hana’a, enjoyment, and gives the sentence a very pessimistic reading:
“When the Jewish people are happy, no other nation is happy along with them.”
Separateness as a necessity for Jewish survival: Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Netziv of Volozhin, Lithuania C19th) suggests that verse needs to be punctuated differently, reading it as: ‘They are a nation that when alone – dwells’. In other words, as long as the Jewish nation retains its special character, it will survive. But when it loses its particular identity, then it is in danger of losing the secret of its survival.
Separateness as a challenge to Jewish action: Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Holocaust survivor, Israel Lau, has suggested that Balaam’s prophecy should not be read alone, but together with another sentence of prophecy later in this weeks reading, which also begins with the word ‘hen’ – “hen am ke-lavi yakum” – ‘this is a people that will rise up like a lioness’. Balaam’s focus on Israel’s isolation, Lau suggests, is only the first half of a two part prophecy that calls on Israel to rise to action and take control of its destiny. These four different approaches suggest radically different readings of the Balaam’s prophecy. Yet they all have one striking aspect in common. They all accept, as indisputable fact, the truth of Balaam’s observation that Israel is indeed isolated and separate (for a different approach see In others’ words below).
So perhaps it is fitting that this week’s haftarah, the reading from the prophets, counterbalances this particularistic approach, opening with a vision of the Jewish people not as isolated but as an integral part of humankind, with a message not just for one ethnic group, but for all mankind:
And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the Lord, and as showers upon the grass… (Micah V:)
In others’ words
Two different Israeli perspectives on ‘dwelling alone’:
“The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a ‘people that dwells alone’ [Num 23:9] is an abnormal concept, when actually a ‘people that dwells alone’ is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel’s revival. If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy… one must come back to the primary idea that this is ‘a people that dwells alone.”
Ambassador Yaakov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone
“No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone’ and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.’ We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and co-operation that is spreading over the entire globe these days — lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station.”
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Address to the Knesset, July 1992
On a lighter note
A famous antisemitic jingle summarized antagonism to the Jewish idea of separateness in four short lines:
Jews, of course, are not ones to remain silent in the face of criticism, and this hostile little ditty generated at least two responses. The first, focused on the absurdity of anti-semites who have no problem accepting a son of the Jews as their Messiah:
“But not so odd
as those who choose
the Jewish God
but spurn the Jews”
The second, less deep perhaps, but no less effective;
And as a final blow in self defense, the Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe suggested the following epitaph for G.K.Chesterton, the Catholic anti-semite who is credited with the writing the original poem in the first place:
Here lies G. K. Chesterton
Who to Heaven would have gone,
But didn’t when he heard the news
That the place was run by Jews!