A Separate Holiness by Ariel Caplan


In Bilam’s blessings of the Jews in Parshat Balak, Bilam proclaims the oft-quoted and just as often debated Pasuk (Bemidbar 23:9), “Ki MeiRosh Tzurim Er’enu, UMiGeva’ot Ashurenu, Hen Am Levadad Yishkon, UVaGoyim Lo Yitchashav,” “For from the tops of mountains I see [the Jewish nation], and from hills I gaze at it.  Behold!  It is a nation that shall dwell alone, and among the nations it shall not be considered.”

The second half of the Pasuk is generally understood to refer to the unique identity of Bnei Yisrael as an entity separate from all other nations.  The first half, however, is subject to some debate.  Pshat-oriented Mefarshim such as Ramban and Rashbam will explain that Bilam was literally looking at the nation from a hilltop – a logical approach, as such a position would allow him to take in the entire picture and see the Jewish nation as a whole.  Such a perspective would allow Bilam to make sweeping statements about the nature of the entire Jewish people.  But how can we explain the interpretation of Drash-oriented Mefarshim such as Rashi, who interpret it as a reference to the Avot and Imahot (i.e. the strong foundations of the Jewish people)?  Why would Bilam go from talking about our ancestors, who were quite involved with the outside world (e.g. Avraham’s encounters in Mitzrayim and Eretz Pelishtim, the Eishel, Yaakov’s time with Lavan, etc.), to a statement of how separate we are?

To find an answer, we must first look at the next Pasuk: “Mi Manah Afar Yaakov UMispar Et Rova Yisrael, Tamot Nafshi Mot Yesharim UTehi Achariti Kamohu,” “Who has counted the ‘Afar’ of Yaakov or set a number to the ‘Rova’ of [Bnei] Yisrael?  May my soul die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his.”  Ramban and Ohr HaChaim (and possibly several other Mefarshim, as some of them are somewhat unclear on this point) understand the second half of the Pasuk as referring to the end of Bnei Yisrael, which is to inherit Olam Haba.  Since Pasuk 9 begins with the foundation of the Jewish people and Pasuk 10 ends with our ultimate goal, we can say that what comes between the two represents some aspect of the entire span of Jewish history.

The first part of the middle section, “Hen Am...,” is a description of how we relate to the nations of the world.  Throughout our history, our enemies have capitalized on our being different and separate, often using it as a reason to arouse hatred against us, as Haman did (see Esther 3:8).  Even so, we must realize the value of our separateness.  There is no profit in trying to assimilate and gain recognition among the nations.  “Levadad Yishkon” – it is only alone that we are able to live securely, but “UVaGoyim Lo Yitchashav” – if we try to mix in among the nations, we will not be considered anything special.  If so, our retention of a distinct identity is indeed a foundation of our survival.  History has shown that whenever we try to assimilate, we disappear or suffer persecution, but when we establish strong communities and a strong identity, we are able to survive and flourish.

Another important pillar of Judaism can be found in the first half Pasuk 10.  Rashi explains Afar as referring to the Mitzvot we fulfill with dust, the lowliest of all materials.  We have the Mitzvot of not plowing with an ox and a donkey, not planting Kilayim, the dust of the Parah Adumah, the dust that the Sotah consumes – and that list is just scratching the surface (no pun intended).  Rashi then explains Rova as referring to the offspring that emerge from marital relations (he relates Rova to Revi’ah, mating, usually used in the context of animals but occasionally used to describe humans).  Both of these are demonstrations of how we take items or actions that seem like things we should not even address and infuse them with Kedushah.  We take dust and elevate it to a Cheftzah Shel Mitzvah, and we take an action that other religions frown upon and turn it into the Mitzva of Peru URevu.  This idea applies to whatever we do; by following Halacha, we turn our everyday lives into expressions of spirituality.

Returning to our original question, we can answer that the mention of the Avot is juxtaposed to the description of our identity because the Avot serve as a paradigm of how to establish relationships with the outside world while maintaining our identity.  The Avot were not rich and politically powerful people who happened to have their own religion; they were Ovdei Hashem first and foremost, and when they needed to deal with an Avimelech, a Pharaoh, or a Lavan, they used the principles and values of the Torah as the guideline every step of the way.

Many people think it is a great Kiddush HaShem when someone has a high-powered job or has great achievements in the secular world and still manages to have a great attachment to Torah and to Judaism.  However, someone with this attitude is in fact distorting the fundamentals of Judaism.  We do not “manage” to have Jewish life “in addition” to a secular career.  Instead, we view everything through the prism of Torah and Mitzvot, using the body of Halacha as our guide in choosing a career and carrying out our secular responsibilities.  A surgeon in a hospital or a scientist looking for a cure for cancer is engaged in Pikuach Nefesh, a social worker is performing psychological Chesed, and anyone blessed with children in Yeshiva is earning money to fulfill VeShinantam LeVanecha.  When we have the right intentions, we can turn even the mundane actions in our lives into spiritual pursuits.

The same applies to our general relationships with Nochrim.  As we have already noted, we can only be successful if we are careful to maintain our identity and remember that we are a separate nation with our own collective goals.  A true Kiddush HaShem is created when someone imbues everything he does, even in the secular world, with the Torah’s philosophies.  Our religious and secular lives are not separate; instead, we strive to make a good impression of Torah and Torah-true life by following Halacha in our dealings with Nochrim.  If we are seen as people who make no compromises in following Torah law and who therefore respect and deal fairly with everyone, we will be fulfilling our goal of showing the nations of the world the truth and uprightness of Torah.  We will thereby fulfill our ultimate goal of being an Or LaGoyim and merit a Mot Yesharim and Olam Haba, an ending to our story of which even our enemies are forced to say, “UTehi Achariti Kamohu!

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