Balak | A Nation that Dwells Alone
Summarized by Zvi Shimon
Bil'am, accepting Balak's invitation, is unable to curse Israel. Instead, he actually recounts the praise and describes the noble attributes of Israel. Among these is the uniqueness and separateness of Israel amongst the nations - "Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav," "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bemidbar 23:9).
Rashi refers us to Targum Onkelos who explains the verse as relating to the end of days. During the divine judgment at that time, Israel will not be judged along with the other nations. Rabbenu Bachya, who also understands the verse as relating to the eschatological future, goes on to explain the source of the separateness of Israel as rooted in its Torah and faith.
The reason for the interpretation of the verse in relation to future events is the future tense form of the verb "yishkon." However, there are many examples of the future tense used to indicate the present (e.g. Tehillim 126:6). It is possible to understand the words of Bil'am as referring not to the future but to the natural present condition of Jewish existence. Israel dwells both spiritually and geographically separated from the nations.
The midrash interprets the beginning of verse 9, "Ki me-rosh tzurim er'enu u-migevaot ashurenu" ("For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him"), as relating to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the people of Israel. The source of Israel's singularity lies in its forebears. Pre-revelation Israel was already characterized by this separateness: Chazal explain the name "Avraham Ha-ivri" as based on Avraham's being separate from the rest of the world. The whole world was on one side of the river, and Avraham was "me-ever la-nahar," on the other side. Our forefathers' independent set of values and their ways of chesed set them apart from all peoples. So too the people of Israel are, in and of themselves, distinct from the rest of the world.
This uniqueness and separateness is all the more accentuated after God's revelation to Avraham and eventually to the whole nation of Israel. This two-dimensional separateness stemming, on the one hand, from the uniqueness of spirit of the forefathers and the people of Israel, and, on the other hand, as a consequence of God's revelation, can be seen in the double meaning of the verse, "Hashem badad yanchenu..." ("The Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with Him" (Devarim 32:12). "Badad" can relate both to God as being the sole overseer and leader of Israel and also to the nature of Israel's existence as being separate from the rest of the family of nations (see Ibn Ezra, ibid.). This sense of separateness, however, is not solely on a dogmatic ideological plane. It is experienced and felt by all Jews on the existential plane. The Jew feels himself unique among the peoples. He might find himself immersed among them; however, he always feels separate from them.
The Gemara in Shabbat comments, "Ein mazal le-Yisrael." This may be understood in the context of the heavenly running of affairs on earth, in which all other nations are represented by a different angelic messenger of God while Israel is overseen directly by God himself. Alternatively, we may understand the adage as referring to the fact that Israel does not function on the basis of normal historic causality but is rather governed by a separate set of rules. Renowned historians have commented on the inexplicability of the phenomenon of Israel. According to all laws of historic causality, the people of Israel should have ceased to exist long ago.
It is extremely disturbing that many in our age would try to blot out this uniqueness. This attempt is twofold. From the ideological perspective, one can hear calls for the abandonment of the "narrow" and "provincial" ways of our father and an adoption of the more universal, cosmopolitan aspects of modern culture. In addition, some of our leaders speak of a "new Middle East" in which Israel would physically assimilate and blend into the greater regional scene. This, however, is an impossibility. Israel might cooperate on a logistical, economic, pragmatic level with other nations, but its uniqueness prevents a complete integration with its neighboring countries.
This uniqueness and separateness which Bil'am describes as he peers from the hilltops overlooking the camp of Israel is the reason for his incapability to curse Israel. Israel, as a unique phenomenon, is unaffected by the curses and witchcraft of the likes of Bil'am. Its uniqueness pertains both to the present as well as to the eschatological future, both on the socio-historic, as well as the meta-historic level. "Hen am levadad yishkon u-vagoyim lo yitchashav!"
(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Balak 5755 .)
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