It is fascinating that some of the most splendid prose in the Hebrew Bible emerges from the mouth of Balaam, a prophet and archenemy of the Jewish people, who, summoned by the Moabite king to curse Israel, ends up delivering the most poignant poetry ever uttered about the history and destiny of a unique and singular people (1).
"From the top of mountains I see him from the hills I behold him; It is a people that dwells alone, And is not reckoned among the nations…
"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel! As winding brooks As gardens by the river's side As aloes which G-d has planted As cedars beside the waters…
"He [the Jew] crouches and lies like a lion, like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Blessed is he that blesses you, And cursed is he that curses you…"
What is more, the most explicit reference in the five books of Moses to Moshiach, the Jewish leader who will bring about the full and ultimate redemption, when heaven and earth will kiss and humanity will become truly one, is to be found in Balaam's prose: "I see it, but not now; I behold it, but it is not near. A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise up from Israel…"
This is very strange. The identity, nature and calling of the Jewish people is naturally discussed abundantly throughout the Bible. Yet the fact remains that the most acute, potent and finely tuned appreciation of Jewish identity is communicated through the mouth of a non-Jewish prophet who loathes Israel and attempts to destroy it. Why?
Clarity of vision
The message, I believe, is quite clear. The Torah is teaching us that if you wish to understand who the Jew is, you must seek the perspective of the non-Jew! The non-Jewish individual, who is unbiased and unaffected by the "Jewish complex" and its inclination toward self-depreciation, possesses a keener appreciation of the Jew than many Jews themselves.
The non-Jewish world does not fall prey to the popular Jewish claim that we are merely a "normal secular people," a "cultural ethnic group" who enjoys love, money, food and leisure as much as any good goy (gentile) in the world. Consciously or subconsciously, the gentile senses that something very profound and authentic sets the Jew apart from the rest of the human race. Although he or she may not be able to put his or her finger on what exactly that otherness is, the non-Jew feels that Israel "is a people that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among the nations."
A peculiar people
Eric Hoffer, an American social philosopher, author of the classic "The True Believer" and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, expressed Balaam's sentiments in a Los Angeles Times article decades ago.
It is tragically clear that almost nothing changed since Mr. Hoffer wrote these words in May of 1968.
"The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. "Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it, Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchmen. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese — and no one says a word about refugees. "But in the case of Israel the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee called the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis.
"Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace. Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.
"Other nations when they are defeated survive and recover but should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed. Had Nasser triumphed last June he would have wiped Israel off the map, and no one would have lifted a finger to save the Jews.
"No commitment to the Jews by any government, including our own, is worth the paper it is written on. There is a cry of outrage all over the world when people die in Vietnam or when two Negroes are executed in Rhodesia. But when Hitler slaughtered Jews no one remonstrated with him. "The Swedes, who are ready to break of diplomatic relations with America because of what we do in Vietnam, did not let out a peep when Hitler was slaughtering Jews. They sent Hitler choice iron ore, and ball bearings, and serviced his troop trains to Norway. "The Jews are alone in the world. If Israel survives, it will be solely because of Jewish efforts.
"Yet at this moment Israel is our only reliable and unconditional ally. We can rely more on Israel than Israel can rely on us. And one has only to imagine what would have happened last summer had the Arabs and their Russian backers won the war to realize how vital the survival of Israel is to America and the West in general. "I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us."
Three non-Jewish perspectives
The uniqueness of the Jew keenly perceived by the non-Jewish world is expressed in the positive sense as well.
In his "The Meaning of History," Nicholas Berdayev wrote the following about the meaning of Jewish history: "I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint. And, indeed, according to the materialistic and positivistic criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished."
And how about the splendorous words of the great Russian novelist, Leo Nikolaivitch Tolstoy, who wrote this in 1908 about the Jewish people: "The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He, who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He, who was the first to produce the Oracles of God. He, who has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself."
And here is a passage by contemporary historian Paul Johnson: "All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jew has this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place."
And, of course, the immortal words of Nineteenth-century American president John Adams: "I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization."
Another Non-Jewish philosopher, Peter Kreeft, wrote these words: "The prophetic spirit of the Jew finds a meaning and a purpose in history, thereby transforming mankind's understanding of history. Their genius for finding meaning everywhere - for example in science and in the world of nature - can be explained in only two ways: either they were simply smarter than anyone else, or it was G-d's doing, not theirs. The notion of the chosen people is really the humblest possible interpretation of their history."
Some years ago, in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., best-selling author Rabbi Harold Kushner made this candid confession:
"This past year [of endless terrorism and anti-Semitism] has compelled me to come to conclusions I didn't want to come to. For all of my years as a rabbi, I have believed and I have taught that Jews were no different from other people, that Judaism was different from Christianity and Islam, but Jews had the same feelings, the same strengths and weaknesses, the same fears and dreams that Christians and Muslims have. I took issue with the Chabad rabbis who argued that Jewish souls are essentially different than gentile souls.
"I opposed and discouraged interfaith marriage, not because I believed that Jews were better than non-Jews but because a family with two religions was likely to raise children with no religion to avoid arguments.
"But this year has persuaded me that Jews are in fact different. I find myself compelled to face the fact that the Jew plays the role for the world that the canary used to play for the coal miners. You've read about how the miners would take canaries with them into the mines because the canaries were extremely sensitive to dangerous gases. They responded to danger before the humans did. So if the miners saw the canaries get sick and pass out, they knew that the air was bad and they would escape as fast as they could.
"That's what we Jews do for the world. We are the world's early warning system. Where there is evil, where there is hatred, it affects us first. If there is hatred anywhere in the world, it will find us. If there is evil somewhere in the world, we will become its target. People overflowing with hatred for whatever reason, including self-hatred, make us the objects of their hatred.
"This is the role we play in the world, not by choice but imposed on us by others, to be the miner's canary, to smoke out the bigots, the haters, the people who will be a menace to their communities if someone doesn't stop them, and we identify them early on by their hatred of us.
"Hitler attacked Jews before he attacked western civilization, and that should have alerted the world to what kind of person he was, but the world misread the signal. Muslim fanatics practiced their terrorist skills on Israelis before turning those skills on the rest of the world, but the world never understood the warning… "Our job is to live as Jews were summoned to live, because we can't escape the fate of being a Jew. Generations before us have tried and failed. We can claim the destiny of being a Jew; because when we do that, we discover how satisfying a truly human life can be."
Rabbi Kushner did not explain why the Jews were the canaries of the world, what exactly placed the Jewish peple into this "position." This was well articulated by Professor Eliezer Berkovitz in his powerful book Faith After the Holocaust:
"The fear that so many different civilizations have of the Jew, the suspicion with which he is met, is utterly irrational, yet it has its justification. It is utterly irrational, because it has no basis in the behavior in the Jew or in his character. It is a form of international madness when it is founded on a belief in Jewish power and Jewish intention to hurt, to harm, or to rule.
"Yet it has its justification as a metaphysical fear of the staying power of Jewish powerlessness. The very existence of the Jewish people is suggestive of another dimension of reality and meaning in which the main preoccupation of the man of "power history" are adjudged futile and futureless in the long run… As long as the Jew is around, he is a witness that G-d is around. He is the witness, whether he knows it or not, whether he consciously testifies or refuses to testify.
His very existence, his survival, his impact, testifies to G-d's existence. That he is here, that he is present, bears witness to G-d's presence in history. There lies the origin of the satanic idea of the Final Solution. If the witness were destroyed, G-d Himself would be dead."
Many of our beloved brothers and sisters, young and old American progressive and open-minded Jews, raised in the spirit of egalitarianism and equality, have for a long time attempted to suppress this historical truth. We have tried hard to convince ourselves and our children that when push comes to shove, we were indeed equals with the nations of the earth; that at the end of the day we were seen as part of the collective family of the human race. Anti-Semitism, we told ourselves, was a relic of the past, existing in backward countries not permeated with the spirit of liberty.
Yet the virulent anti-Semitism resurrected during the past decades across the world and the absolutely irrational obsession to demonize Israel, is beginning to open many of our eyes. If you open almost any newspaper in the world, or watch any television news station internationally, you can hear the message articulated 3,300 years ago by a sophisticated and spiritual non-Jew: "It is a people that dwells alone, And is not reckoned among the nations."
This is not a curse. It is reality. If we wish to survive and thrive we must embrace this truth, acknowledged long ago by our fellow non-Jewish inhabitants of this planet. The world will only appreciate Jews when we will possess the courage to appreciate and love ourselves. The world is embarrassed with an Israel that is embarrassed with its 4,000-year faith and tradition that the Holy Land is G-d's gift to the Jews.
Paradoxically, only when we will acknowledge our "aloneness," will we become a true source of blessing to all of humanity.
1) This week's Torah portion -- Numbers chapter 24.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.