A Thought for the Week
Year forty-year was a big year for the Jews. Because of the barrenness of the desert, we had a certain privacy and aloneness. Our problems were mostly internal. We lived with each other, we fought with each other, we lived with G-d and we fought with G-d. We were isolated and used our time alone to become a people. During our final year of wandering, the desert was no longer quiet. We came to the part that was full of people.
They were new kinds of people, civilizations and cultures. Sichon, Og, Midyan and Moav lived in green pastures on the west side of the Jordan. Through the leadership of Moshe we made diplomatic requests to walk through their oases in peace, but they seemed to resent our very existence. A struggle ensued. It was a struggle for safety, security and Jewish identity. Our uniqueness was being challenged. The nations waged war, they tried to trick us and in this Parsha they tried to entice us and curse us. They pulled out their best, Bilaam ben Beor.
Bilaam was the “most successful gentile,” of that generation and possibly in history. He was the parallel of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu. He didn’t represent a specific nation; he was at the apex of the non-Jewish world as a whole. He belonged to the world. Chazal tell us that he was called Bilaam because of his universality; “b’lo am” (without nation). He taught that everyone should shed his or her nationalism and become a “citizen of Planet Earth”.
His freedom from any national identity enabled Bilaam to reach the highest levels. He was above politics, war, racism and power struggles.
He grew to be a “prophet like Moshe” among the nations. Bilaam was the Guru of universalism.
His teaching, however, also caused him to hate the Jews and desire to
curse us. We are a nation. We are nationalistic in essence. We are a “chosen” people and Bilaam sought to annihilate us. Listen to his words.
He repeatedly refers to the Jews as “Ha’am” or “the nation”. The prelude
to his curse was “Behold, it is a nation dwelling in solitude, not counting itself
among other nations.” He called us separatists, standoffish and arrogant.
According to Bilaamism there can never be a chosen people. It is a step
backward and very dangerous for one nation to be destined to show others the way was. Bilaam represents a very sophisticated and highly
marketable form of anti-Semitism. Universality denies national uniqueness, and
therefore denies the existence of a chosen people. When someone stands out they are susceptible to the ayin hara. Bilaam tried
to give us an ayin hara. Hashem protected us and Bilaam’s curse turned
to bracha. We became even more unique, we became greater teachers and
our chosenness shone through.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish Education and the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes Program
Comments and questions are very welcome
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