Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.


  הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵש בָּם

These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove against God, and he/it was sanctified in them / he was separated from them. (Num; 20:12–13)

 One of the most confusing passages in Torah happens here in parashat Chukkat – not the mysterious ritual of the red heifer which is the ‘hok’ par excellence of Torah, a law without obvious or rational basis to be done simply out of obedience to God’s laws -but the events at the rock, where instead of ordering the rock to yield its water, Moses struck it twice instead (as he was told and did in the first such narrative in Exodus 17:6).

Here in chapter 20, God had instructed Moses and Aaron to take a rod, assemble the community, and order the rock to give its water. But instead Moses had struck the rock twice, had described the Israelites as rebels, and had done the whole thing himself, without including Aaron.  Tradition tells us that Moses’ many failings are demonstrated here. Anger, Impatience, Self-centeredness, Lack of faith in God, … and that this is the reason that God tells both Moses and Aaron that they will not enter the promised land, because Moses had lost control, had not trusted in God, and Aaron had not stopped him. God said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Those are the Waters of Merivah, the Israelites quarrelled with God—“

But I wonder. That verse seems to be pointing at something a little different.

  הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵש בָּם

and then we have this strange phrase “va’y’kadesh bam” translated usually as some variation of “through which God affirmed sanctity.”

It is this notion of the sanctification of God in this passage that I find deeply troubling. From the moment when God blessed and va’y’kadesh the Shabbat day (Genesis 2:3), the verb va’y’kadesh has an infrequent but powerful presence in bible.

            It is used at the foot of Mt Sinai when Moses tells the people to prepare for the giving of the commandments in three days’ time, telling them to wash themselves, to stay away from women.          It is used when Aaron and his sons are taken through the rituals of becoming priests and particularly high priest. It is used again at the ritual opening of the Tabernacle readying it for sacrifices.   All of these uses are not so much about making something holy, but about separation and dividing, making something ready for particular usage. The only time we hear about the sanctification of God is in the verse before ours:

יב  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹא-הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–לָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתִּי לָהֶם.   12 And God said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’

Then follows the verse we know, but it doesn’t seem to be the continuing words of God, it is not spoken in the first person, and it seems to be an interpolation in the speech:

  הֵמָּה מֵי מְרִיבָה, אֲשֶׁר-רָבוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיִּקָּדֵשׁ בָּם

These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel quarrelled with God, va’y’kadesh bam .

I would like to suggest that we are no longer talking about punishment of Moses or even of the people with this verse, and we are also not in the realm of the sanctification (or not) of God. Instead, we should look at this verb va’y’kadesh and recognise that it is reflecting the geography of the surroundings of the people of Israel, they are in the wilderness of Zin, in the area of Kadesh. In other words they are in an isolated and separated place, not yet part of a community, not connected to anywhere else.

The root comes to mean ‘holy’ by virtue of its more fundamental meaning – that of being separate, distinct and different. It makes sense in all the other usages of this word as a verb va’y’kadesh, as God separates the Sabbath day and makes it distinct, Moses separates out the people and warns them to be different from usual, the High Priest (and the priesthood generally) are separated from the rest of the populace. The tabernacle is also made a distinct and special place when it is given the status of kedusha by Moses once it is completely built. So why would we not translate our verse as “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove against God, and were separated/ isolated/ made different because of it.”

            This is the generation that didn’t have to leave Egypt. This is not the generation who were at Sinai. This is the generation who were born into the wilderness, born after the spies had led the people into a spiral of anxiety and depression by reporting that the Promised Land, while wonderful and fertile, was filled with giants who made themselves look pathetic in their own eyes. This is the generation who as yet know neither themselves nor God.

So maybe what is happening is that after punishing Moses and Aaron for their not teaching about belief and faith to the children of Israel and so being told that they will not be the ones who lead them into the promised land, the attention turns to the relationship between God and the children of Israel – this generation who were not yet taught to sanctify God and to have faith – and because of the striving against God, then something different has happened to them.

            There are times when we look for purpose in our lives and times when we simply jog along with them. Times when we need to believe and times when it doesn’t seem so important. Times when we can believe and times when it seems impossible

This is the very first time the new generation, the ones for whom miracles were the everyday occurrences of manna and water, of needs being met without much effort and battles being won without much loss, had to face something different. Miriam has already died, there is a shortage of water, Aaron and Moses were both getting older and there must have been a general understanding of the mortality of the leadership who had been there from the beginning, who spoke to God, who knew (or appeared to know) the purpose of the wandering.

This generation had to see something special; they had to see words bring about change. It was time for them to take on some of the obligation to God that up till now had been taken on for them. Moses and Aaron may or may not have failed in the way the carried out God’s instructions, in many ways it doesn’t matter, what matters is that an awareness was brought about that this new generation were not yet ready  to take on the task of their elders. It was time for something to hasten their readiness. And so I read these verses not as sanctifying God so much as preparing and altering the people in readiness to take over the work. That by their striving against God they were creating a relationship which would change them. “Va’y’kadesh bam” is not God being sanctified by the waters of Merivah, a concept which eludes me to be honest, but the people being made ready to be holy by their actions at that time.

All of us need to grow and to alter, to take on the burden of the work that others have done before us, be it for the community or within the family; promotion at work or a change of career – we grow up and we grow. It is not something we have a choice about, and that too is made clear in this sidra. But what is also made clear is that however much we don’t want to take on the work, however much we strive against it, we cannot escape it – the very act of striving against it changes us…. So we might as well take it on with good grace.