Bilaam, Mr. Planet Earth
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
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Year forty-year was a big year for the Jews. Because of the barrenness of the desert, we had a certain privacy and aloneness. Our problems were mostly internal. We lived with each other, we fought with each other, we lived with G-d and we fought with G-d. We were isolated and used our time alone to become a people. During our final year of wandering, the desert was no longer quiet. We came to the part that was full of people. They were new kinds of people, civilizations and cultures. Sichon, Og, Midyan and Moav lived in green pastures on the west side of the Jordan. Through the leadership of Moshe we made diplomatic requests to walk through their oases in peace, but they seemed to resent our very existence. A struggle ensued. It was a struggle for safety, security and Jewish identity. Our uniqueness was being challenged. The nations waged war, they tried to trick us and in this Parsha they tried to entice us and curse us. They pulled out their best, Bilaam ben Beor.
Bilaam was the “most successful gentile,” of that generation and possibly in history. He was the parallel of Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu. He didn’t represent a specific nation; he was at the apex of the non-Jewish world as a whole. He belonged to the world. Chazal tell us that he was called Bilaam because of his universality; “b’lo am” (without nation). He taught that everyone should shed his or her nationalism and become a “citizen of Planet Earth”.
His freedom from any national identity enabled Bilaam to reach the highest levels. He was above politics, war, racism and power struggles. He grew to be a “prophet like Moshe” among the nations. Bilaam was the Guru of universalism.
His teaching, however, also caused him to hate the Jews and desire to curse us. We are a nation. We are nationalistic in essence. We are a “chosen” people and Bilaam sought to annihilate us. Listen to his words. He repeatedly refers to the Jews as “Ha’am” or “the nation”. The prelude to his curse was “Behold, it is a nation dwelling in solitude, not counting itself among other nations.” He called us separatists, standoffish and arrogant.
In one of the first sermons I ever delivered (around 1980) I spoke against intermarriage. I spoke about the uniqueness and special calling of the Jewish people. As far as I was concerned my words were motherhood and apple pie. Who could argue? One of the women walked out in a huff. I assumed that she was intermarried and therefore offended. Later I learned that this was not the case. She was offended because I was a racist. I spoke of our people as being chosen and to her this was unacceptable. She was a Bilaamist.
According to Bilaamism there can never be a chosen people. It is a step backward and very dangerous for one nation to be destined to show others the way was. Bilaam represents a very sophisticated and highly marketable form of anti-Semitism. Universality denies national uniqueness, and therefore denies the existence of a chosen people. When someone stands out they are susceptible to the ayin hara. Bilaam tried to give us an ayin hara. Hashem protected us and Bilaam’s curse turned to bracha. We became even more unique, we became greater teachers and our choseness shone through.
What Bilaam couldn’t do with philosophy and preaching, Moav tried to do with beautiful women and a compelling culture. Many fell, but for the most part we held strong.
Things haven’t changed. Throughout history we have been persecuted for our chosenness, but it has always turned to a blessing. “Mah Tovu Ohalecho Yaakov, Mishkinosecho Yisroel.” By creating a strong community, strong synagogues and a strong educational system, and by resisting the temptations of assimilation, we can permeate the universe with spirituality, goodness and the presence of Hashem.
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