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Parshas Balak: Dwelling in Difference

One of the many reasons that people come to therapy is to get an outsider’s perspective on a critically important or emotionally charged matter. Patients will seek out an “objective” third party, sometimes to mediate relationship challenges (such as in marital therapy), or even just to help an individual sort out his or her thoughts and feelings. The underlying premise is that it is difficult to effectively problem-solve or even sometimes to see things clearly when you are “nogeiah badavar,” closely involved in the matter. When we are caught up in our feelings about something important, or we are used to seeing things only from our own perspective, it can be difficult to entertain other possible solutions, explanations, or perspectives on a given matter. With time and skill, folks can learn to zoom out and see beyond their own viewpoint. And, often times it takes an outsider to really help us see ourselves accurately.

No story highlights the power of the outsider’s perspective more than the one at the heart of our Parsha.

Balak, the king of Moav, wants to weaken the Jewish people, so he enlists the help of Bilam, a sorcerer and gentile prophet, to curse Bnei Yisrael and render them vulnerable to attack. This plan is first foiled by Bilam’s donkey, who is stopped by an angel on the roadside because Hashem does not want Bilam to be able to complete his mission. Realizing that Hashem does not condone this task, Bilam promises instead to say only the words that Hashem puts in his mouth (22:38). Balak’s attempts to rouse Bilam’s evil eye against the Jewish people is then thwarted three more times. On each occasion, Balak takes Bilam to a different vantage point, from which he gazes out onto Bnei Yisrael, and, rather than cursing them, speaks high praise of the Jewish people and of our relationship with G-d.

First, he ascends to Bamot Baal, from which he can see “kitzei ha’am,” a portion of the people (22:41). The Ha’amek Davar (23:13) explains that Bilam actually could see the entire Klal Yisrael, but his Ayin Raah was partly blinded. Whatever he saw from that mountain top resulted not in evoking criticism but rather in highlighting Bnei Yisrael’s greatness, essentially cutting off Bilam’s ability to see them negatively. Instead (23:7-10), Bilam calls the people an “am livadad yishkon,” a nation who dwells alone. He extolls their virtues, noting “mi manah afar Yaakov, u’mispar es rova Yisrael,” who can count the dust of Yaakov or the seed of Yisrael?

Balak is angry with Bilam for blessing the Jewish people rather than cursing them. He brings Bilam to yet another mountain top, where Bilam announces that Hashem is with Bnei Yisrael, and no harm will befall them. Again, it seems, the plan fails epically.

Finally, Balak takes Bilam to the peak of Peor, and here Balak sees Bnei Yisrael camped according to their Shevatim. Once again, Bilam does not curse the Jewish people. Rather, he sings their praise, uttering the famous lines, “Ma tovu o’halecha Yaakov, mishkenosecha Yisrael,” how good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael (24:5).

Reading the Pesukim, it is obvious that Bilam commits to doing and saying only that which Hashem wants, and that he is not going to curse Bnei Yisrael. And yet, with each time that he gazes upon the camp of the Jewish people, he does speak about us – and his commentary on Bnei Yisrael is beautiful. It seems that Bilam’s experience of simply seeing Bnei Yisrael stirs up something powerful within him and causes him to reflect upon what he sees with words that must be truth, for they are utterances of which Hashem approves.

What is it that Bilam saw about us that moved him so?

In his sefer Ha’amek Davar, the Netziv provides a beautiful explanation of several of these Pesukim that highlights what exactly Bilam saw when he looked upon the Jewish people.

First, Bilam calls us an “am livadad yishkon,” a nation that dwells alone. Unlike other nations that are exiled, or who dwell among the nations of the world, we are notorious for standing out, and for never entirely assimilating. Second, Bilam mentions the “afar Yaakov” and “rova Yisrael,” which the Netziv explains refers to the fact that the Jewish people take care of the needs of the entire community in a way that has ripple effects for generations. Lastly, when Bilam sees Bnei Yisrael camped according to our tribes, he famously praises the tents and dwelling places of Bnei Yisrael. The Netziv here explains that “mishkenosecha” is plural, referring to two mishkenos, or dwellings. One refers to the gathering of the leaders of Bnei Yisrael to take care of the Tzarchei Tzibur, the worldly, daily needs of the people, and the other refers to the Gedolei Torah, those who toil in Torah learning. Both are essential parts of the Jewish collective community, and integral to the inherent “good”ness of our people.

Bilam saw a nation that chooses to stand apart, to live separately from all other people. And, in our separateness and aloneness, we camp by tribe, rarely mixing or integrating. In some ways, over the generations, this separateness has been part of our downfall. Minding only our own business, disconnected from various sects of our people, has led to in-fighting and Sinas Chinam, and ultimately to destruction and devastation. Yet, Bilam saw Bnei Yisrael camped thusly and, according to the Netziv, this visual turned Bilam’s Ayin Raah into love and respect for Klal Yisrael! How can this be?

Perhaps what Bilam saw is what we all often fail to see about the beauty of Klal Yisrael. Yes, we are a nation that dwells alone. And, we can categorize and separate each other even further by tribe, either according to our official status as Shvatim, or in the ways that we each self-identify with particular subcommunities and subsects. Yet, there is beauty here. Firstly, Bilam initially saw all of Klal Yisrael together, and he understood that we are ALL a nation that dwells alone. No matter how we related to each other, we are all inherently one. Often, our enemies understand this critical point far better than we do, for better or for worse. Secondly, our unique place within our tribes or different communities allows us to learn from each other, and to provide support for each other in various different ways. As such, separateness and diversity even within our nation can be overcome and overshadowed by our desire and efforts to care about the collective needs of the community, and by a respect for the roles that we all can play.

At one point during graduate school, I overheard a classmate of mine whose family is part of a

particular Chassidish community explaining to our non-Jewish classmates how Hatzalah works. Given the speed at which they operate in comparison with most ambulance services, Orthodox patients will often think to call Hatzalah before calling 911, whether their emergency is medical or psychological. My classmates were astounded at the idea of the organization, and at the image my friend conjured up of several Ultra-Orthodox men in full Hassidic garb rushing to the aid of another Jew in need, perhaps even to deliver a baby, regardless of that Jew’s affiliation or whether they know them at all. “That’s amazing,” they gushed, “it’s incredible how many organizations you guys have dedicated solely to helping your community, no matter what or who!” I vividly remember my Frum classmates and I turning to each other in awe, recognizing that sometimes it takes an outsider to see what we are blind to.

This Shabbos, on the eve of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz and the beginning of the three weeks, there is perhaps no message more important than the one brought to us by an outsider. What we cannot see about ourselves because we are too close to the matter is that our differences are not meant to be whitewashed or eliminated. Primarily, we are different than the other nations of the world. Galus is characterized by antisemitism and hatred, and this does not come upon us because we are not assimilated; rather, it is our duty and identity to stand out, to dwell alone together, and it is up to Hakadosh Baruch Hu whether the nations of the world respond to that aloneness in awe (as Bilam did) or disdain. Moreover, we are different from one another. We have spoken before about the uncanny valley[1], how our similarities bring us closer until we notice what divides us and are repelled from each other. And, the beauty of our differences is that they allow us to divide and conquer. We cannot all be leaders or Torah scholars, we cannot all attend to the collective needs of the entire Klal. Completely alone, we are helpless and indifferent to each other’s plight. Together, we can leave nations of the world in awe at our ability to care for and love our incredible community.

This week, let us not get caught in the trap of separation that leaves us feeling hatred toward our fellow Jews. Rather than being steeped in that which renders us indifferent to one another, let us take in Bilam’s words and recognize the power of dwelling alone, fortified in difference – and love.


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