A People that Dwells Alone?

Balak – 9 July 2011 – 7 Tammuz 5771

The dictionary defines epiphany as “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something; a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” This is the story of an epiphany I experienced one day in May, 2001, and it changed my perception of the Jewish fate.

It was Shavuot, and we were in Jerusalem. We had gone for lunch to a former lay leader of a major Diaspora community. Also present at the table was an Israeli diplomat, together with one of the leaders of the Canadian Jewish Community.

The conversation turned to the then forthcoming – now notorious – United Nations’ Conference against Racism at Durban. Though the conference would not take place until August, we already knew that it and the parallel gathering of NGOs would turn into a diatribe against Israel, marking a new phase in the assault against its legitimacy.

The diplomat, noting that the conversation had taken a pessimistic turn, and being a religious man, sought to comfort us. “It was ever thus,” he said, and then quoted a famous phrase: “We are am levadad yishkon, the people that dwells alone.”

It comes from this week’s parsha. Bilam, hired to curse the Jewish people, instead repeatedly blesses them. In his first utterance he says to Balak king of Moab:

How shall I curse, whom G-d hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord has not defied? From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23: 8-9)

Hearing these words in that context I experienced an explosion of light in the brain. I suddenly saw how dangerous this phrase is, and how close it runs the risk of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, you are likely to find yourself alone. That is not a safe place to be.

“Are you sure,” I said to the diplomat, “that this was a blessing, not a curse? Remember who said it. It was Bilam, and he is not known as a friend of the Jews.” Bilaam is one of the people mentioned in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10: 2) as having no share in the world to come. Having failed to curse the Israelites, he eventually did them great harm (Numbers 31: 16).

“Remember,” I continued, “what the Talmud says in Sanhedrin (105b), that all the blessings with which Bilam blessed the Jewish people turned into curses with the sole exception of the phrase, ‘How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.’” The rabbis suggest that Bilam was deliberately ambiguous in what he said, so that his words could be understood as blessings, but also had another and darker meaning.

“Nor,” I said, “is badad, being alone, a good place to be according to the Torah. The first time the words “not good” appear in the Torah are in the phrase Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2: 18). About a leper the Torah says, badad yeshev michutz lamachaneh moshavo, ‘He shall dwell alone, outside the camp’ (Lev. 13: 46). When the book of Lamentations seeks to describe the tragedy that has overtaken the Jewish people it says Echah yashva vadad ha-ir rabati am, ‘How alone is the city once filled with people’ (Lam. 1: 1). Except in connection with G-d, being alone is rarely a blessing.

What I suddenly saw when I heard the diplomat seeking to give us comfort was how dangerous this Jewish self-definition had become. It seemed to sum up the Jewish condition in the light of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. But that is not how the commentators understood the phrase. Rashi says it means that Jews are indestructible. Ibn Ezra says it means that they don’t assimilate. Ramban says it means that they maintain their own integrity. It does not mean that they are destined to be isolated, without allies or friends. That is not a blessing but a curse. That is not a destiny; still less is it an identity.

To be a Jew is to be loved by G-d; it is not to be hated by Gentiles. Our ancestors were called on to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The word kadosh, “holy,” means set apart. But there is a profound difference between being apart and being alone.

Leaders are set apart, but they are not alone. If they really were alone, they could not be leaders. Athletes, actors, singers, pianists live apart when they are preparing for a major performance, but they are not alone. Their apartness is purposeful. It allows them to focus their energies, hone and refine their skills. It is not an existential condition, a chosen and willed isolation.

There is no suggestion in the Torah that Jews will live alone. G-d says to Abraham, “Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  Abraham was different from his neighbours, but he fought for them and prayed for them. He was apart but not alone.

Two features have characterised the state of Israel in recent years: first, a deep and dangerous isolation in the international arena; second, a notorious and astonishing failure to make its case, to explain convincingly to the world why it does what it does.

This long puzzled me until, at that lunch on Shavuot 5761/2001, I understood. If you believe it is your destiny to be alone, that you are fated to be hated, you will not seek friends. You will not try to make your case since you are convinced in advance that the effort will fail. You will then blame this failure on other people’s anti-Semitism instead of on your own failure to explain why you do what you do.

The word used in this context – hasbara – is wrong. It suggests that what is at stake is mere public relations. That is not so. What is at stake is the biblical command, veheyitem neki’im, “you shall be innocent” (Num. 32: 22), understood by the rabbis to mean: you shall be above suspicion (Pesachim 13a).

The Talmud says that “One who is wrongly suspected must make the facts known to the person who suspects them” (Berakhot 31b). It learns this from the case of Hannah, who was praying with such deep emotion that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. She explained that she was not drunk; she was praying in anguish and sorrow (1 Samuel 1: 15-16).

Why did she bother to explain? Her prayer concerned G-d, not Eli the priest. But she took the trouble to clear her name. Jewish law has two principles, mipnei chashad and mar’it ha-ayin, which forbid certain behaviour precisely because it may be misunderstood and lead to wrongful suspicion.

Whatever position we take on the policies of the government and state of Israel, there is an obligation to explain why a nation chooses to do what it does. If what it does is morally justifiable then it can be defended. If it is not morally justifiable then it should not be done at all. This is not a matter of public relations. It is about truth and justice and the duty to educate the public. It is about “the crown of a good name.”

The failure of Israel to take this seriously — using spokespeople who can’t speak the language of their interviewers, appointing as ambassadors people without diplomatic qualifications, defying the media instead of working with it, and so on – is a standing danger to Israel and Diaspora Jewry alike. It is also a sign that Israel has entirely failed to understand the strategy of its enemies, who realise that delegitimation is a more effective form of war than one fought on a battlefield, and that isolating Israel weakens it more than missiles or terror can do.

However, if you believe in advance that you will fail to win friends and allies whatever you do, since it is your destiny to be a people that dwells alone, you will not make a serious effort. You will then find yourself alone, more convinced than ever that the world is against you. Aloneness will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Different, distinctive, apart – yes: these are part of the Jewish condition. But alone? No. That is not a blessing but a curse.

Reprinted with permission from Covenant & Conversation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published by OU Press and Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, www.korenpub.com. Available at www.OUPress.org