Home > Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal > Is Israel’s separation a curse or blessing?

Is Israel’s separation a curse or blessing?

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO–Balak, the King of Moab, hated the Israelites. He asked Balaam, a well-known prophet and soothsayer, to curse them on his behalf. When Balaam refused, Balak changed his mind by promising him a generous honorarium. Balaam, however, did have one condition: “I can utter only the word that God puts in my mouth.” (Num. 22:38)

Balaam attempted to curse Israel three different times but each time he spoke, words of blessing came forth. The most famous of these blessings begins the morning service each day: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha, Yisrael – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.” (Num. 24:5)
At minyan Thursday morning another verse of Balaam’s blessing caught my attention: “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.” (Num. 23:9)

There are many Jews who have argued that this “separateness” is not only a blessing, but the key to Jewish survival. Rabbi Mordechai Rottenberg, for example, wrote that Num. 23:9 teaches us that when Israel dwells apart, she lives gloriously and with honor. However, when Israel mixes with the other nations, that is, she is reckoned among the nations, she loses her glory and distinctiveness.

Our Etz Hayim Torah commentary says that the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, “suggested that the Jewish people survived in the Diaspora, not despite the enmity of their neighbors but precisely because of it. If we ever became objects of their friendship, it would be harder to avoid assimilating.” (Etz Hayim, p. 900 & 901)

Balak wanted Balaam to curse Israel and one must wonder if today his dream has come true. The one place on earth where Jews are really “apart,” the State of Israel, is under siege. Balaam’s words that Israel is “not reckoned among the nations” have lately come to life in the charge that Israel has no right to exist. There are growing attempts by Israel’s enemies and anti-Semites everywhere to delegitimize and destroy the Jewish State.

In a June 23rd interview in the Los Angeles Times Israel’s President Shimon Peres said: “The fact that [outsiders] are pressing us doesn’t mean that they’re right. There is an attempt to delegitimize Israel. It’s quite easy. The Arab bloc has a built-in majority in the United Nations. We never stand the slightest chance.

“But I ask myself the following question: If they are delegitimizing Israel, who are they legitimizing? They legitimize Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaeda, too. They don’t mean to. But if you delegitimize the fight against terror, which is very complicated, the consequences are that terror is being legitimized.”

The journalist then asked: “Isn’t that an oversimplification? Is criticizing Israel’s policies and practices the same as delegitimizing Israel?”
Peres responded: “Criticism is one thing. But when you say, ‘Go back to Poland. Go back to Germany,’ [as American journalist Helen Thomas recently said in a widely condemned remark] that’s not criticizing. Or when they say Israel doesn’t have the right to exist, that’s not criticizing.”

Perhaps the Ba’al Shem Tov was right in his time and place: it cannot be argued that one of the forces that has kept the Jewish community intact throughout the centuries is the refusal of our Jewish neighbors to accept us as equals. However, in the modern world such enmity might not be a blessing but a curse if it leads to the destruction of the State of Israel.
We must not sit idly by nor allow falsehoods to become truths. We must raise our voices and take action now. The U.S. is not only the best ally Israel has but its strongest, as well. We must urge our government to stand up to the lies and not allow Balaam’s blessing to become a curse.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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