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Dvar Torah Parashat Balak

By Rabbi Benjamin Stone
June 30, 2015

Some remarkable statistics:

Between the years 1918-1933 Jews made up 0.78% of the German population but accounted for approximately 15% of doctors and dentists, 25% of the lawyers and 80% of the key positions in the country’s stock exchange.

Polish Jews made up 10% of the population in 1931 but accounted for 33% of the lawyers, 24% of the pharmacists and 56% of doctors in private practice.

16% of Nobel prize – winners in the science category between the years 1901 – 1962 were Jewish. Jews were overrepresented when compared with other groups by a factor of 6.6.

By 1919, 20% of students in all colleges at Harvard were Jewish. Other Ivy League colleges experienced a similar Jewish intake. At Columbia Jews made up 40% of the student body.

(Personality and Individual Differences 44 (2008))

Various theories have been advanced over time to pinpoint the secret of the Jews’ remarkably disproportionate success (greater intelligence, work ethic, will power etc.). One of the more interesting theories posited is that Jewish mothers push their children to succeed more than their gentile counterparts (Marjoribanks (1972)). Now whilst some of us may find this latter theory compelling to a degree (do not grin), I think the expected general response to that theory will be one of raised eyebrows.

From our point of view, the statistics cited above come as no surprise.

In this week’s sedra the subject of the relationship between the Jews and their surrounding nations is the focal point of Bilaam’s landmark monologue.

Bilaam’s first observation or beracha is that

“(Klal Yisroel)….will dwell l’vadad (alone); they will not be counted amongst the nations”. (23;9)

Now at first thoughts it is unclear exactly what beracha lies behind these words. Is living in isolation a blessing? Does Israel enjoy the multi – directional media onslaught which awaits its’ every move?

A quick look at the Kli Yakar and Ramban’s comments on this pasuk resolves this question.

The Kli Yakar writes that at the time of Avraham Avinu’s first interactions with Hashem, Klal Yisroel were selected by Hashem to be his people. They were “eternally separated from all the nations of the world with no attachment to any other nation” The greatest proof of this was that Hashem chose, on more than one occasion to take a population count of the Jews, whilst never choosing to take a cencus of other nations. One only counts what is most precious to him. Hashem took a further census of Klal Yisroel once they had set themselves in the formation of degalim, with the twelve tribes split into four campsThis purpose of this census was to show that the four camps –  one of which was positioned in the North, one in the South, one in the East and one in the West – were a microcosm of the world itself, the message being that these camps were what mattered most to Hashem in his world.

The Ramban adds that Bilaam’s point was

“Just as I can see the Jews encamped in isolation, so too will they forever be separated (from other nations),  living in security…They will sit at the top of the world, no nation will be able to defeat them and they will never become insignificant when compared to the other nations of the world.

In view of the above, the meaning of the pasuk when it tells us that Klal Yisroel will dwell “l’vadad” is not simply that klal Yisroel will live in physical isolation, but rather that they will be outstanding. Their achievements will be exemplary when set against those of other nations.

We are now drawing near to explaining those remarkable statistics cited above.

In one of the earliest interactions between Hashem and our people, Avraham Avinu is instructed to

“step outside, gaze at the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them…your offspring will be as numerous” (Bereishit 15;5)

The Netziv (Ha-emek Davar) writes that this promise did not relate to the number of Avraham’s future descendents (which had already been the subject of an earlier beracha (see Bereishit 13;17)). The promise in fact related to the nature of his offspring – that they would be “men of stature”. Although, writes the Netziv,

“The nations of the world also develop men of stature, they are a relatively low proportion of those nations as a whole, where as in the case of Klal Yisroel, the proportion is much greater”.

Indeed when in Parashat Voetchanan, (Devarim 7;7) Hashem informs Klal Yisroel that it is “not because of their great size that I chose you” The Netziv writes that the “size” mentioned here does not refer to the total number of Jewish people but their great wisdom, which stood out over and above other nations.

In light of the above are we to conclude that we are guaranteed eternal and unconditional success? Certainly not.

The word “l’vadad” – which is understood here to refer to our outstanding success is typically translated as “alone”. The implication is that our success is inextricably intertwined with the maintaining of our separateness as a people. Indeed our history shows a correlation between Klal Yisroel’s willingness to assimilate and our corresponding downfall.

The Ramban points out here that the unique separateness of the Jewish people which Bilaam noted, was facilitated by the universal subscription of Klal Yisroel to the authority of the Torah.

But what can we do to ensure that we remain subscribed to the authority of the Torah?

Before we answer that question lets deal with another.

Amongst all of Bilaam’s berachot, we only find one which deals with a specific mode of behaviour of one Jew towards another (ben odom lechavero). The gemarah (Bava Basra 42b) states that in observing

“How great are your sanctuaries, Yaaakov” (24;5)

Bilaam gazed at the neverending encampment and marvelled at the fact that the entrance to one tent was never set opposite the entrance to another tent “so that one could not peak into his neighbour’s tent”. What was the significance of this behavioural choice? And why is this behavioural habit in particular, the only one highlighted by Bilaam?

I recall R’ Matisyahu Salamon shlit”a of Lakewood Yeshiva asking why one in general likes to “peak into anothers’ tent”, to know what is going on in other peoples’ lives. He answered that by nature we like to know the latest gossip because we have an innate desire to pass such information on. R’ Matisyahu stated further that we have been given an antidote to this negative inclination – that of learning Torah. He explained that the drive to create a chidush (original Torah thought) is based on a desire to pass that new information onto another person. We can satisfy our desire to gossip by giving over our original Torah thoughts to other people.

Rav Matisyahu continued by picking up on an interesting phrase in teffilat shacharit. We ask Hashem to “light up our eyes with your Torah”. Now if the intention here were to simply ask for better understanding of Torah then surely the request should have been more explicit. What were Chazal driving at by using the words “Light up”? Rav Matisyahu explained that the request here is not for greater understanding. We ask to illuminate our eyes with Torah. When ones’ eyes are illuminated by something bright, one cannot see anything else other than the brightness. So too here, we ask that Hashem illuminates our eyes with Torah, that we enjoy our learning so much that we do not see or want to know of other matters.

It was through their appreciation and enjoyment of learning that Klal Yisroel managed to stay so close to the Torah enabling them to lose interest in gossiping; It is this appreciation for Torah which Bilaam was singling out for praise.

Perhaps it is this enjoyment of Torah learning, the making of our learning the “light of our lives”, that is the key to ensuring that we can continue to cling to the Torah which – as we have seen in the Ramban – is the key to cementing  our separateness as a nation. This in turn will guarantee that we are zoche to the beracha of dwelling “l’vadad” and our future success as a people.

Rabbi Benjamin Stone


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