Who Are the Jewish People? Parshat Balak

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Who, or what, defines Israel, and why does it matter? If deeply concerning trends continue in the United States, research and ample anecdotal evidence indicate that those succeeding in affecting views toward Israel are the very people who attack it as a racist, discriminatory occupier lacking any moral or political legitimacy. Noble attempts to brand Israel as a high-tech haven (“startup nation”) notwithstanding, Israel is increasingly being effectively defined by foes, not friends. What, if anything, can be done to reverse these deeply troubling developments?

In our weekly biblical portion, Balak, we read that efforts by enemies to define the Jewish people have ancient antecedents. King Balak of Moab, frightened by the “biblical Israelis,” vastly overestimates their global designs as well as their military might: “This multitude will lick up all that is round about us as the ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4). He therefore turns to Bil’am, a magician and a soothsayer, an accomplished poet and master of the spoken word, to curse the Israelis in order to vanquish them (ibid., v.6).

Bil’am represents the giant media corporations and social media platforms that play a dominant role in shaping public opinion. Is it not true that these manipulators of minds have the power to destroy a world with a word? And indeed, Bil’am sets out to curse the Israelites. Nevertheless, the Torah goes on to say that the prophet ultimately blesses the Israelites.

Bil’am may have come to curse, but he stays to praise. He evokes Jewish destiny in glowing terms, extolling the uniqueness of Israel (ibid., 23:9) and evoking our ultimate Messianic victory (ibid., 24:17–19). He affirms unmistakably that “no black magic can be effective against Jacob and no occult powers against Israel” (ibid., 23:23) — evil words spoken by evil people are impotent before the modesty and integrity expressed by the Israelites in their daily lives.

Ultimately, it is the deeds of the Jewish People themselves that will evoke change: “Your deeds will bring you close, your deeds will distance you” (Mishna, Eduyot 5:7).

In this generation, in which detractors and haters attacking the Jewish People and Israel are on the ascent in capturing public opinion, we must remember to ignore the noise and to focus on our national mission. To rephrase Ben Gurion, indeed it is not what the nations say that matters, but rather it is what we do or what we do not do, especially in the spheres of ethics and morality, that is of supreme significance.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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