In Israel: Balak


Leave Us Alone



In this week’s Torah reading, the pagan seer Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, but every time he tries, he ends up blessing them instead. In the first of these blessings he says as follows:


     How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? And how can I doom those whom the Lord has not?

     I see them from the mountaintops, looking upon them from these heights:

    A people who will dwell apart, and not be counted among the nations.

(Num 23:8-9)


The phrase in the last line, “a people who will dwell apart” (an alternate translation is “a people dwelling apart” or “dwelling alone”) has a long history. It has often been taken as a warrant for Jewish separatism: intermarriage (exogamy), or any other form of intermingling with other peoples, is to be avoided because, as Balaam said, we are “a people dwelling apart.”


Sometimes it is cited in order to claim that we Jews are a people different by nature from all others. The book of Jubilees, written by an anonymous Jew in the second century BCE, says as follows:


All of the descendants of his [Abraham’s] sons would become nations and would be counted with the nations. But one of Isaac’s sons [Jacob] would become a holy seed, and he would not be counted among the nations, because he would  become the portion of the Most High (see Deut 32:8-9), and all his descendants would fall into that [share] which God owns, so that they would become a people whom the Lord possesses out of all the nations. (16:17-18)


 Here, Balaam’s words (in italics above) are cited in support of Israel’s inherently separate status: Jacob, the ancestor of the people of Israel, will become a “holy seed” (for this phrase in connection with intermarriage, see Ezra 9:2) and his descendants “would not be counted among the nations” because, unlike all other nations, the Jews will be God’s own, personal possession.


The Aramaic translation (targum) of Onqelos renders “a people dwelling apart” as “a people destined to inherit the world [to come],” while another ancient Aramaic translation renders “and not be counted among the nations” as: “they do not share the laws/customs of other nations.”


Elements of these understandings survive to this day: Balaam’s words are often cited, especially in modern Israel, as a way of saying that we Jews are altogether different. Indeed, I have heard this verse cited more than once in connection with another common sentiment, “The whole world is against us.” How could it not be against us, given our special and altogether separate status as “a people who will dwell apart”?


None of this, however, seems to be what Balaam really meant. He could hardly be talking about any actual, physical isolation, given the proximity of various other peoples neighboring the Land of Israel. Philo of Alexandria, the first-century Jewish commentator who lived in Egypt, certainly knew the geopolitical facts. He says explicitly that Balaam did not say what he said “because their dwelling place is set apart and their land severed from others.”


Instead, Balaam’s blessing seems to reflect what might be the wish of any inhabitant of ancient Israel: to be left alone and not annexed to someone else’s empire (as indeed so often happened to Israel and Judah during the biblical period). That is what the adjoining phrase, “and not be counted among the nations,” seems to mean—not to be considered part of the mighty Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, or neo-Babylonian empires.


The various interpretations cited above may indeed have fostered Jewish pride and sustained our people through the toughest of times. Yet sometimes the intended meaning seems blessing enough: Just leave us alone.


Shabbat shalom!


Weekly Torah Reading, July 16, 2016


Outside Israel: Ḥukkat


“Rise up, O Well”



This week’s Torah reading begins with the detailed procedure for purification from corpse contamination—a rather technical matter. But this section is then followed by a number of historical recitations and even two pieces of ancient Hebrew poetry. The second of these, known as the “Song of the Well,” is particularly mysterious. After the Israelites arrive in the land of Moab, the Torah reports that they sang the following song:


 “Rise up, O Well,” they sang about it,

“The well that the chieftains dug, that the noblemen opened,

With their staffs, as it was decreed.”


The incident referred to in this brief snippet is quite unknown today. Presumably, it was connected to some famous (perhaps miraculous) discovery of a source of water in the arid territories of Edom or Moab, said to have been crossed by the Israelites on their way to the land of Canaan. But this song ultimately came to be connected to a particular person, someone not even mentioned by name in it: Moses’ sister Miriam.


It all started back in the book of Exodus—in fact, right after the actual exodus from Egypt. The people were in need of water, so God instructed Moses to strike a certain rock with his staff, which he did. Immediately, the rock flowed with water. Forty years later, in this week’s reading, the same thing happens again: Moses goes with Aaron and again strikes a certain rock, and again the water flows. (For more details, see my brief essay, “Moses Big Mistake,” found on my website under the rubric, “Essays, Bibliography, and Other Things.”)


It certainly seemed strange that there were two water-giving rocks, in two different places and separated by forty years! Thinking about this, interpreters concluded that there were not two water-giving rocks, but only one, and it must have followed the Israelites throughout their forty years of wandering. That’s why they never ran out of water: Moses and Aaron must have repeatedly struck the rock during that whole time, and it had always supplied the people with plenty to drink. In fact, this is what our reading’s song seemed to be hinting at: the rock was “the well that the chieftains dug”—that is, that Moses and Aaron had dug, and not so much “dug” as caused to open—“with their staffs, as it was decreed.”


But if so, why was it connected to Miriam? The answer is found a bit earlier in this week’s reading. There it is reported that Miriam died (Num 20:1). Immediately thereafter, the Torah reports that the people ran out of water to drink. Naturally, ancient interpreters wondered if these two happenings were related. If, as long as Miriam was alive, there was plenty of drinking water, but as soon as she died the water ran dry, then this ongoing supply must have been delivered because of Miriam’s many virtues. As soon as she was no more, the divine spigot was closed. It may have been Moses and Aaron who physically struck the rock (and not altogether properly on the last occasion, as this week’s reading reports), but the water actually came from the rock because of the virtuous Miriam. Once she had died, her merit could no longer bring about this ongoing miracle, and the water stopped.


Shabbat shalom!

2 Responses to Weekly Torah Reading July 16, 2016

  1. RJ says:

    I’m not sure why the fact that Israel was surrounded by various neighbors excludes the idea that they dwelled alone and separately. “Alone” just means that they didn’t associate or mingle a lot with the other nations.
    Also, Bilaam’s seems to be describing a current reality, not some future wish.

    • admin says:

      That’s how a lot of people interpret thisverse, but I’m not sure. “Dwelling” (yishkon) seems to me to imply something different from mingling, certainly in the sense of cultural or religious mingling (which is how some people read this verse). And in the second half of the verse, “be considered” (yit-hashav) also seems to favor the idea of political independence. Or so it seems to me. Thanks for writing.

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