This week we come to a portion replete with challenges. The famous line of this portion, found in every prayer book and sung in many congregations is from the blessing the reluctant “hero” Bilaam gives to the Israelites: “Ma Tovu” ” How Beautiful/Fair/Good are your Tents O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5).
This is a portion that speaks of curses turned to blessings, talking asses, political challenges and ends with slaughter. A tough portion, no doubt. In the middle of conversations between Balak and Bilaam and Bilaam and God, who, as the portion tells us, helps turn the requested curses into blessings, we discover one passage from Bilaam that, in one of his transitional moments, speaks to so many issues both communal and personal. Bilaam: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when God has not doomed? As I see then from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23: 8,9)
What does it mean to be a people apart? Was this some sort of premonition of much of Jewish history? Surely, for much of our history we have been a people apart, often not by our choice. Yet, there are some who see this apartness as a means of keeping Judaism alive. Often many contemporary scholars chafe at the creeping assimilation of contemporary Judaism as a sign of decay, rather than strength. Is it better, they seem to say, to maintain distance and not become “like all the other nations”? But in a modern world, how do walk that line between being part of the general community and maintaining a sense of separateness? There is no meeting or convention or discussion within our contemporary community that does not address this question. What are the boundaries of involvement? How “apart” must we stay to keep out identity?
There is also another way of looking at this. Does being “apart” mean to be alone, cut off from other people, communities and self? Indeed, the text speaks of a “am l’vadad” Rabbi Jonathan Saks, on the portion, plays with that word “”vadad”, referencing other usages of the concept of being alone and how negative it is. He maintains in his commentary that, according to a stream within Rabbinic Judaism, “a people that dwells alone eventually became not a blessing but a curse”.I think what Saks is also trying to say to us is something we have discussed here before. The “curse” of being alone is one that leads to destruction of self. We are reminded, especially as we age, that being “apart” from society instead of being a part of society can be a cause for alarm. It is not good to be alone, as Genesis [2:18] reminds us. Is this section of Torah telling our community that as well? Is is saying that the more we cultivate division, the more isolated we become and the more isolated we become, the more in danger we really are.
Rabbi Richard F Address