1. Pinner Shul
  2. Sedra Synopsis
  3. Chukat-Balak 5783

This week’s sedra, Chukat Balak, tells the story of the Moabite king Balak, who hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam’s donkey speaks along the way, and Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites. The portion ends with a story about Israelite men sinning with Moabite women and the stabbing of an Israelite and a Midianite. There are several themes running through the sedra. Moses is commanded to speak to the rock to issue water but strikes the rock instead. Hashem then tells Moses and Aaron that they will not enter into the Promised Land. Subsequently, both of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, pass away. One of the most thought provoking statements in the sedra is where Balaam, the pagan prophet said: Behold it is a people that dwells alone.

To many – Jews and non-Jews, – that has epitomised the Jewish situation: a people that stands outside history and the laws governing the fate of nations. For Jews it was a source of pride. For non-Jews, it was often a source of resentment and hate. All agreed, though, that Jews were different. The question is: how and why? It is not that Jews alone knew G-d. Balaam – the prophet who uttered these words – was not an Israelite. G-d does not appear only to Jews. Nor does He answer only Jewish prayers.

The sages said that “the righteous of the nations of the world have a share in the world to come.” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, contains the names of more than 20,000 righteous gentiles who saved lives during the Holocaust years. Personally this resonated with me as I had an aunt, uncle and cousin in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia who were saved by non-Jewish neighbours at great personal risk during the Shoah.

Yaacov Herzog, former Israeli diplomat and uncle of the current President of Israel, published his collected essays under the title, drawn from Balaam’s words A Nation that Dwells Alone. The verse expressed the uniqueness of the Jewish people – its isolation on the one hand, its defiance and resilience on the other. Though it has faced opposition and persecution from some of the greatest superpowers the world has ever known, it has outlived them all. It is not a comfortable fate to be “a people that dwells alone”, but it is a challenging and inspirational one.

Jon Kalisch

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