The centrality of this week’s portion of Balak is the prophecy of Balaam which is divided into four sections. The first refers to Israel’s protection against its enemies, the second is about Gods ever presence and commitment to Israel, the third predicts Israel’s victory over its enemies and the fourth is a prophecy about the downfall of Moab. What fascinates me most is the blessing found in chapter 23:9:
“As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations”
From a first reading it seems as though this is less a blessing and more of a curse. After all what nation would want the dubious status of isolation among the nations of the world as is described in this poetic verse. Isn’t this the kind of isolation that Israel faces in the United Nations today and has been since its inception? Most nations seek out the friendship or alliances with their neighbors finding common ground upon which to strengthen common interests. Balaam’s descriptive prophetic blessing of Israel is exactly the opposite. Israel is to be a nation apart from and separate not to be reckoned among the nations. Sounds like it’s more of a curse!
Nehama Leibowitz’s, understanding this conundrum reads the word “yitchashev” to be interpreted from the hitpael, reflexive. As such the meaning of the sentence changes to be understood as “this is a people that do not reckon itself among the nations”. How powerful and how prophetic the vision is, once we approach the text from the reflexive.
Israel doesn’t share the same values as its surrounding neighbors. It stands apart, refusing to be influenced by their morals standards and ethics. Israel draws its value system from another tradition, a higher authority, unknown and unappreciated by other nations. To site but a few current examples is Isreal’s humanitarian assistance and our treatment of the critically ill in Gaza in spite of their obsessive desire to eradicate us. The Supreme Court decision in Israel to allow admission of Darfur refugees reflects our system of ethics. In spite of our limited financial ability to end poverty among our own, and in spite of possible security risks, we still can’t turn our back on those in desperate need of a safe haven as we once were in need, but without a single country willing to open its ports to us.