How can I curse whom G-d has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if HASHEM has not been angered? For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” (Bamidbar 23:7-9)
Since we already have a talking donkey in the Parsha and Bilaam the Rasha is quoted extensively, perhaps it is not so sacrilege to quote here Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. His observation and question continue to echo through the cosmos and haunt secular historians till this very day.
This is a small part of a larger article from Harper’s Magazine in 1898, “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor; then faded to dream–stuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
What is the secret of our immortality? Bilaam may have given us a big hint. In one brief line he prophetically portrays the Jewish People, “It is a nation that will dwell alone”. Does that mean we live in complete isolation from the world?!
Mark Twain’s words would indicate otherwise. We are heard from? We are not isolated from the peoples of the planet. We intersect with the world every day. What does it mean then to “dwell alone”? We are distinct wherever we go. How and where does this distinction show up? There are many areas but let’s focus on one in particular.
One of my Rebbeim told us that his father was a big businessman and he employed many gentile workers and they adored him, but never did they come to his home. This is in step with our ancestor Avraham who made his life’s mission to reach out to the world, to all types of people, but he had “an office”.
The Holy Torah narrates the event as follows, “And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, “My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant.” (Breishis 18:2-5) With all of his extreme kindliness Avraham parked his guests outside his tent under the shade of a tree. He bathed their feet so as to wash away even the dust of idolatry that they might be carrying with them. See how extra careful Avraham was about coming into contact with even a germ of idolatrous influence and protecting his house.
The verse then testifies, “And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold, in the tent.” Sarah maintained the integrity of that distinctive place which is free from the influences of the general culture, the home. We had a frequent guest who would come with Ninjas and Mickey Mouse stuff for our kids. We were not too pleased. But then one day she showed up wearing swim wear. I asked her where her clothing was and she told me, “This is America!”. I pointed to the street and declared firmly, “There is America! In here is our home!” She left and she never came back. I feel bad but our home remained that distinctive place where we dwell alone…with HASHEM.