August 22, 2012

Am Levadad Yishkon

Rabbi Haber

The name I’ve chosen for this blog – “Am Levadad Yishkon” – explains the perspective from which I will be writing.   Those who know me personally are aware that these three Hebrew words from the Biblical book of Bamidbar (23:9) are very significant to me.   In fact, I’ve even made Yaakov Shwekey’s rendition of the verse into the ringtone on my phone.

Over a decade ago, I chose these words (which mean “a nation that shall dwell in solitude”) as the title of a rather popular class I gave every year at MMY.   Although I teach many other things as well, it is in this class that I am best able to communicate my hashkafat olam (outlook on life) to my students.  To me, the words “Am Levadad Yishkon” signify an entire way of looking at the world, at the Torah and at life itself, which I develop with my students over the course of a full semester.    At some point, I hope to publish a book which will present this viewpoint in a systematic way, but in the meantime this brief introduction will have to suffice.

Here is the full Biblical sentence:

"כי מראש צורים אראנו ומגבעות אשורנו, הן עם לבדד ישכון ובגויים לא יתחשב"
“I see him from atop the rocks, I behold him from the hills – this is a nation that shall dwell in solitude, and will not be counted amongst the nations”

This verse contains a prophetic blessing uttered by a fascinating figure known as Bilaam ben Beor, a gentile prophet who tried to curse the Nation of Israel, but was unable to do so.   As the Torah (Devarim 23:5-6) later puts it, “[Bilaam tried] to curse you, but Hashem your God did not choose to listen to Bilaam, and Hashem your God turned his curse into a blessing.”[1]

What does it mean to be a nation that “dwells in solitude”?

We can see the truth of Bilaam’s words even today, by simply looking around us.   For now, we’ll just look at one example.   Let’s compare two countries that both start with “I”: India, and Israel.   India is the world’s second most populous country, home to over 1.2 billion people –  about 17% of the total world population.   Israel, on the other hand, has a population of about 7.9 million, which is only about 1/10th of one percent.  (In other words, just under one of every five human beings in the world lives in India, whereas only about one in a thousand lives in Israel.)  Logically speaking, which of these two countries ought to be on the front page of every major newspaper in the world at least once a week?   But which one actually is?  How do you explain that??

As far as I can see, the only reasonable explanation is that, although we Jews may not realize (or may not wish to realize) this, the rest of the world understands that somehow we are different.   The reason Israel gets so much attention is because it is the State of the Jewish People, and the entire world seems to understand that this makes it important.  We are a nation that “dwells alone” – we operate by a completely different set of rules.

We can also ask, is this indeed a blessing?   Actually, it appears that many contemporary Jews view the concept of “Am Levadad Yishkon” as a curse, which is of course what Bilaam originally intended.   Sometimes, it seems, our deepest desire is actually to just blend into the woodwork and become invisible.  The last thing many Jews want is to be viewed differently from those around them.  If only we can fit in, we sometimes tell ourselves, then we will be accepted by the Gentiles – and this acceptance is often what we crave most.[2]

The Torah tells us clearly, however, that the one thing we will never be able to do is to blend in.   As a group, we will always “dwell in solitude” and we will never “be counted among the nations”.   To be sure, this often makes life difficult.  But it also attests to a completely different plane of existence – for one thing, it means that as a nation, we are always protected.   Though we can suffer greatly (and unfortunately, we certainly have) we can never be destroyed.

History has shown this to be true as well – as Mark Twain remarked in a much-quoted and celebrated essay over 100 years ago: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed…. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was…. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

The Torah actually answered Mark Twain’s question, thousands of years before he wrote it (as a believing Christian, one would think he knew the Bible; I wonder why he didn’t think of this?).  In a number of places (for example, Vayikra 26:39-45), the Bible explains to us that the People of Israel will always remain in existence – no matter how much we suffer – because of the Covenant that God made with our ancestors, and because of the unique role we play in this world.

Like it or not, we represent God to the rest of the world.   We were chosen for this task, and the Torah tells us that we are destined to carry it out, one way or another.   So it seems we are destined to always “dwell alone”.   The only question is if we do so with a sense of pride and mission – in which case “Levadad Yishkon” will indeed be a blessing, or if we desperately try to avoid it, which invokes curses.

In many of my future blog posts, I hope to explore this concept further, and to examine contemporary ramifications of this understanding.

[1]For those who are unfamiliar with this unusual story, I recommend reading the entire narrative in the original.  If you want to study the section in greater depth, I recorded three lectures I gave on the topic a number of years ago.  They are available on the “YU Torah” website – here , here and here.

[2] This psychology – which in some ways is unique to the Jewish People – is not by any means a new phenomenon.  In fact, it goes back to the very beginnings of our history.  More on this, b’ezrat Hashem, in a future post

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