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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Balak 5771 - Covenant & Conversation - Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on the weekly torah portion

A People that Dwells Alone?

The dictionary defines epiphany as "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something; a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization." This is the story of an epiphany I experienced one day in May, 2001, and it changed my perception of the Jewish fate.

It was Shavuot, and we were in Jerusalem. We had gone for lunch to a former lay leader of a major Diaspora community. Also present at the table was an Israeli diplomat, together with one of the leaders of the Canadian Jewish Community.

The conversation turned to the then forthcoming -- now notorious -- United Nations' Conference against Racism at Durban. Though the conference would not take place until August, we already knew that it and the parallel gathering of NGOs would turn into a diatribe against Israel, marking a new phase in the assault against its legitimacy.

The diplomat, noting that the conversation had taken a pessimistic turn, and being a religious man, sought to comfort us. "It was ever thus," he said, and then quoted a famous phrase: "We are am levadad yishkon, the people that dwells alone."
It comes from this week's parsha. Bilam, hired to curse the Jewish people, instead repeatedly blesses them. In his first utterance he says to Balak king of Moab:

How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom the Lord has not defied? From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23: 8-9)

Hearing these words in that context I experienced an explosion of light in the brain. I suddenly saw how dangerous this phrase is, and how close it runs the risk of being a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, you are likely to find yourself alone. That is not a safe place to be.

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