Numbers 22:2 – 25:
“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” [Num. 24:5]
With these words the pagan prophet Balaam blessed the people of Israel, despite his commission from King Balak to send a destructive curse instead. How do we make sense of these words, coming from a man who was no friend of the Israelites, and later plotted their destruction through other means? Why does God force Balaam to bless Israel instead of inviting Moses or Aaron to do so? Why is Balaam’s blessing enshrined in our prayer books and chanted each morning as we gather to pray, to frame our experience of worship?
One possibility, developed by the medieval rabbinic commentators, speaks to the idea that our greatness comes because we are different from all other peoples, and we must be diligent to maintain our distinctiveness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, offers a different interpretation – turning instead to the words of another anti-Semite (at least according to the poet W.H. Auden), G.K. Chesterton, who famously described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” and “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Rabbi Saks continues:
“That is, in fact, precisely what made Israel different – and America’s political culture, as historian Perry Miller and sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out, is deeply rooted in the idea of biblical Israel and the concept of covenant. Ancient Israel was indeed founded on a creed, and was, as a result, a nation with the soul of a religion.”
Most every other nation formed out of practical circumstances – functions of demographics, geography, economics and similar concerns. Israel, however, received the Torah (our effective constitution) in the wilderness of Sinai, forty years before establishing ourselves in the Promised Land. We are a covenant people, governed by ideals and values, faith and hope – and regardless of our demographic conditions have born witness to this, our way of life, for thousands of years.
Rabbi Saks notes that Balaam was right in describing Israelite exceptionalism and notes the irony of Chesterton’s similar description of American exceptionalism. I agree and would also suggest that this exceptionalism is but a step along the way. The goal is that all nations, regardless of how they originated, be governed by principles and ideals of freedom and justice like those which permeate both Torah and the American Constitution. Of course, for that to happen, we must all be diligent – just as the medieval rabbis warned – lest we lose what we have so generously been given.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras