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Parshas Balak (5771)

Jewish Liberals and Jewish Destiny

In this week’s exciting Torah portion, we find the wicked Balak, King of Moab, sending emissaries to the wicked prophet Bilaam to convince him to return with them to a place near where the Jewish people are camping, so that he could lay a curse on them and bring about their downfall. Bilaam first consults with G-d (in a prophetic dream) Who tells him not to go with them.

Balak then sends higher-ranking officers, in the hope that he can change Bilaam’s mind. This time, when consulting with G-d, Bilaam is told that he may go with them, but must follow whatever G-d tells him to do. Then the Torah tells us that after Bilaam woke in the morning, saddled his donkey, and set out on the journey with Balak’s officers – “G-d’s wrath flared [against him] because he was going…” (see Numbers 22:22).

How are we to understand this strange biblical story? First G-d tells Bilaam not to go with Balak’s men, then He seems to “change His mind” and tells him to go, then, when Bilaam goes, G-d gets angry with him for going?

Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (1720-1797), otherwise known as the Vilna Gaon, answers that if we pay careful attention to the Hebrew text, we will see that there is really no contradiction at all.

He explains that in Lashon HaKodesh (the Hebrew language of the Bible), there are two separate root words – es and im - that can be used to express the idea of going ‘with’, i.e. accompanying, another person … and they are very different.

Whenever the Torah uses the term es, it indicates a relationship of dependency; the one going ‘with’ does so only on account of the other person, but they are not at all on the “same page” in terms of the goal of their journey. The word im, on the other hand, indicates an independence on the part of the person going with; he goes because he truly wishes to make the trip himself. The two are thus equal in their commitment to the cause, whatever it may be.

[In the English language we often use the word ‘with’ in these two ways as well. For example, we might spend an hour ‘with’ someone who is giving a lecture, but it is so boring that we would rather be someplace else, just that we can’t get up in the middle of his talk. Or the speaker might be so interesting and captivating that we were happy to be there as we were ‘with’ him for the entire hour! Are you with me so far?]

With this distinction in mind, says the Vilna Gaon, we can now understand G-d’s initial command to Bilaam and why He later got angry with him. When Bilaam first asked permission from G-d to accompany the officers from Moab, G-d said to him: “You shall not go – ima’hem – with them” (ibid. 22:12). The root of the word ima’hem is im. Thus, G-d was telling Bilaam that since Balak’s men wanted him to curse the Jewish people, he should not go along ‘with’ them, i.e. equally committed to their cause.

The second time Balak’s officers came to Bilaam, G-d saw that Bilaam really wanted to go, so He gave him permission – but only to physically accompany them on the journey and not to join them in their cause. Thus, the Torah says: “G-d came to Bilaam at night and said to him, ‘If the men came to summon you, arise and go - itam – with them …’” (ibid. 22:20). Itam comes from the root word es, which, as mentioned earlier, indicates going on account of the other person, but not sharing the same goal.

Bilaam, however, blatantly disregarded G-d’s command and went along with Balak’s officers, equally committed to the common of goal of cursing the Jewish people – as the words of the following verse indicate: “Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went – im – with the officers of Moab” (ibid. 22:21). Thus, G-d’s wrath flared against Bilaam, because he was going with them and on the same page as them.

So what does all this have to do with Jewish liberals and our ultimate destiny, you ask? Just keep on reading, will ya?

When Bilaam is finally brought to Balak on the top of the mountain overlooking a section of the Jewish people’s camp down below, he attempts to curse the Jews, but instead, G-d puts words in Bilaam’s mouth, and he blesses them.

Bilaam prophesies about the Jewish people: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (ibid. 23:9). The Midrash HaGadol interprets this as a reference to Israel’s mission to remain separate and distinct from the nations. As Jews, we have a unique destiny – to be a “light unto the nations” (see Isaiah 42:6) and a spiritual role model for the nations to emulate – and this can best be accomplished if we remain distinct from the nations, even as we live among them.

What this means for all of us today as Jews is that while we might wake up every morning and get on the same crowded trains as everyone else, and work at the same office buildings as everyone else, and go to the same post offices and shopping malls as everyone around us – we are very different. And although we might sometimes be headed to the same destination as others around us, we Jews share an entirely different destiny.

While we are certainly – ‘es’ – with the nations around us, sharing the same space, and living and working together in peace and harmony, we are not – ‘im’ – with them, on the same page, committed to the exact same mission and goals, as we have a unique destiny as Jews.

In this way, Israel truly is a nation that “dwells in solitude” and stands alone among the nations of the world, just as Bilaam prophesied over 3300 years ago.

Yet, throughout our long and glorious, yet troubled, history, many of our co-religionists have tried to run away from this unique and special role that we were asked to play, seeking instead the more comfortable route of blending in and being “like all the nations around us”.

As Jeff Jacoby, op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote in a brilliant piece titled Why are Jews Liberals?:

“The longing to "be like all the nations" is a recurring motif in Jewish history. Baal-worshipers in the time of the prophets, Judean Hellenists in the Chanukah story, 19th-century assimilationist ‘maskilim’ (so-called ‘enlightened’ Jews -dz), Jewish socialists enthralled by Marx's classless utopia, modern post-Zionists in quest of a non-Jewish Israel -- down through the ages, in one way or another, innumerable Jews have fought or fled from Jewish "otherness" and embraced lifestyles or beliefs that promised to make them less distinctive. Given the cruelty and violence to which Jews were so often subjected, it is not surprising that many would seek to shed or neutralize their Jewishness.” (To read the full article, click on:

According to Jacoby, this longing “to be like everyone else” is the underlying reason why Jews have traditionally been liberals (and Democrats) for so many years. He writes:

“Much of liberalism's appeal lay in making Jews feel good about themselves, secure in the conviction that they were part of a broad and enlightened mainstream. Liberalism freed them from the charge of parochial self-interest that had so often been leveled against Jews. It replaced the ancient, sometimes-difficult burden of chosenness -- the Jewish mission to live by God's law and bring the world to ethical monotheism -- with a more palatable and popular commitment to equality, tolerance, and ‘social justice’.”

Jacoby adds that today, when times have greatly changed from the ‘good old days’ of great liberal democrats like FDR and Truman, to be liberal is no longer rational or sensible, and it certainly isn’t good for the Jews. Yet, as ‘religions’ often are, it is deeply reassuring for many Jews to remain liberals for many reasons:

“It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity's biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that ‘tikkun olam’ is a synonym for the liberal agenda, and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism. Above all it is reassuring to believe that Jews are no different from anyone else, that they are not called to a unique role in human events, and that the best way to be a good Jew is to be a conscientious citizen of the world. To be liberal, in short, is to be "like all the nations."

Unfortunately and tragically, as a direct result of this longing to be like all the nations, assimilation is at an all-time high, intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, and most young Jews are extremely apathetic to Israel and other Jewish causes. We are literally breaking apart at the seams.

And the only hope we have of surviving and thriving as a Jewish nation –and continuing to be a moral, ethical, and spiritual “light unto the nations” which the world needs now more than ever – is if we remind ourselves constantly of what the wicked Bilaam prophesied on that mountaintop so many millennia ago: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations”.

We may live with the nations, yet we are not ‘with’ them and our roles are not the same. And if we, G-d forbid, lose sight of our destiny and unique role in history and try to be like the other nations around us, we will have done irrevocable damage to ourselves as a Jewish nation, and the rest of the world will suffer as well.

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