This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky
The Torah tells us that humans are social creatures – we are not meant to be permanently and completely alone.
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃
The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
Is Bil’am alone?
We know little about Bil’am and his life before Balak dropped in, nor about the nation and place he came from. He seems an isolated character appearing in an isolated story (although Chazal read him into other stories.)
It seems that Bil’am generally gets his messages from God when asleep (see 22:9-12), and thus we can infer that he communicates with God without an audience, like most prophets.
But he is not always alone. When Bil’am agrees (after multiple requests) to go to Balak, he is accompanied by his own young assistants (22:22) as well as the messengers from Moav. In the famous dramatic scene of Bil’am’s talking donkey, it is likely that Bil’am’s main motivation is not be embarrassed in front of his notable entourage. The donkey’s refusal to cooperate makes Bil’am look weak, as Rashi follows Midrash Tanchuma in noticing.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר בִּלְעָם֙ לָֽאָת֔וֹן
כִּ֥י הִתְעַלַּ֖לְתְּ בִּ֑י
ל֤וּ יֶשׁ־חֶ֙רֶב֙ בְּיָדִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה הֲרַגְתִּֽיךְ׃
Balaam said to the ass,
“You have made a mockery of me!
If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”
לו יש חרב בידי.
גְּנוּת גְּדוֹלָה הָיָה לוֹ דָבָר זֶה בְּעֵינֵי הַשָּׂרִים —
זֶה הוֹלֵךְ לַהֲרֹג אֻמָּה שְׁלֵמָה בְּפִיו וּלְאָתוֹן זוֹ צָרִיךְ כְּלֵי זַיִן:
‘This utterance was a great shame for him in the sight of the officers:
this man was going for the purpose of slaying a whole nation by his mouth, and for this ass he required a weapon!
(cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Balak 9)
Let’s imagine the scene. If the officers and servants could see the talking donkey, their focus would be on it, not on Bil’am. If, on the other hand, as the pasuk says “וַיִּפְתַּ֥ח ה’ אֶת־פִּ֣י הָאָת֑וֹן וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לְבִלְעָם֙” – let’s imagine that when G-d opened the donkey’s mouth, it was only לְבִלְעָם֙ – to Bil’am that the mouth was opened. This reading helps us understand how humiliated Bil’am must have been, so unable to control his donkey that he was reduced to raving about killing it.
So Bil’am, who speaks to God privately, arrives in Moav having been humiliated publicly. He would naturally seek public glory to regain his importance and fame. When he finally meets Balak, he is treated to a grand display of sacrifices and feasting. In verse 23:6, Bil’am makes his first attempt at cursing the people – and does so in front of all of the chieftains of Moav (23:6). But first, he does something interesting: Verse 23:6 tells us
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר בִּלְעָ֜ם לְבָלָ֗ק
הִתְיַצֵּב֮ עַל־עֹלָתֶךָ֒ וְאֵֽלְכָ֗ה
אוּלַ֞י יִקָּרֵ֤ה ה֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י וּדְבַ֥ר מַה־יַּרְאֵ֖נִי וְהִגַּ֣דְתִּי לָ֑ךְ
Where does Bil’am go? According to Rashi, Onkelos and others, he goes off alone. The implication: That Bil’am must be solitary to gain inspiration to curse B’nei Yisrael.
(The fact that mainstream translations of the text render “שֶֽׁפִי” as alone should not obscure the fact that this word is very difficult to translate. Ralbag and Tur Ha’Aroch both say it means ‘a high place’ – that his aloneness, if real, was incidental to the fact that he needed to be in a high place (possibly to see B’nei Yisrael) and curse them. Others say it means he was lame. Rabbeinu Bachya, who says שֶֽׁפִי is a hapax legomenon – a word without a peer in the Bible – calls this interpretation as recorded in the Gemara in Sotah 10 midrashic, at which Rashbam might have taken umbrage. After all, there is a verse in Iyov (33:21) where the root is used that way.)
Nonetheless, it is Rashi’s interpretation that has taken root as the primary one. Fundamentally, Bil’am must be alone to do the thing that makes him special.
This reading sets Bil’am up in contrast to B’nei Yisrael. In his first attempted curse of the people, he says (23:9):
כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ
הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃
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
Though the Hebrew shoresh b.d.d is distinct from the ambiguous “שֶֽׁפִי”, it strikes us that these two images are just 6 verse apart. Bil’am goes off on his own to curse a people who are set apart – who are alone together.
It is our general understanding that these words Bil’am said are blessings though he intended them to be curses. As a result, the traditional commentaries think “הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן” must be a great compliment of sorts. Rashi uses the word “זָכוּ ” – merited – in his interpretation, telling us that it is a privilege to dwell apart. Ramban appears to give the term a dual meaning, saying that the Jews are united with each other but distinct from other nations. Other nations must band together for strength, but the Jewish people do not need to do so.
This text perfectly encapsulates the challenge of living in the modern era. Many of us were taught these values in grade school: It is Bil’am’s lack of modesty – his desire to please the Moabite dignitaries and to be feted – as well as his ambition that steers him astray. God is found in solitary places, the text seems to be saying. In contrast, the Jews are blessed when they dwell alone. (After all, at the end of the parsha, an interaction with Moav does lead to ruin.) In this reading, isolation is a feature of Jewish life.
Many modern Orthodox Jews experience some cognitive dissonance when reflecting on these values. We live in the larger society, attend secular colleges, and teach our children to assert themselves and be ambitious. We no longer see isolationism as a value and we know that both the Jewish nation and the country we inhabit need allies to protect their national interests and better the lives of their citizens. In a globalized world, isolation is an impediment to be overcome.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Future Tense, writes that Bil’am worded his prophecies carefully – since he could not curse the people explicitly, he spoke in a manner that was ambiguous enough that each blessing had the potential to become a curse. Rabbi Sacks notes that the book of Eicha also uses the Hebrew root b.d.d to describe the desolation of Jerusalem.
There are certainly moments that call for withdrawal and isolation. There are tasks that are better accomplished alone, and many human beings are introverts who find periods spent alone to be much-needed preparation for the social interaction that is the fabric of our society. The challenge in our era is to thrive spiritually in a globalized world of divergent views and values. We can appreciate the unintended blessings Bil’am gave us without imagining them to be a commandment from God to isolate ourselves in the desert just as we were when Bil’am first laid eyes on us.
Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ’06) lives in Rockville, MD and teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.