Bilaam, the heathen prophet, recognized that the strength of the Jewish people was in their high level of modesty. “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov!” he exclaimed, noting the respect for privacy that pervaded the Jewish encampment in the desert. Yet so soon after his beautiful words, the Jewish people tried to prove him wrong. “Israel was staying in Shittim when the people began to behave immorally with Moabite women” (Bamidbar 25:1).
In a world in which image and marketing play such a crucial role, perception is often more important than reality. In fact, perception often creates reality—beginning with our perception of what is happening around us. “And Balak, the son of Tzippor, saw all the Israel had done to the Amorites”. Balak became nervous and joined forces with his traditional archenemy, Midian (see Rashi 22:4), in order to try and stop the march of the Jewish people.
What a waste of talent. “No other prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel who knew G-d face to face” (Devarim 34:10). Our Sages, in an astounding comment, assert that in Israel, no prophet arose like Moshe—but that amongst the nations of the world, there did arise an equal to Moshe, namely Bilaam.
"The pre-eminence of man over beast is non-existent, for all is vain" (Shacharit). Man has unfortunately proven the truth of this statement over and over again. Our desire for momentary pleasure all too often blinds us to the long term repercussions of our actions. Moreover our cruelty, cunning, deceit, and moral decay know no bounds.
It is for good reason that the lion is the king of the jungle. Powerful, courageous, fearless, and ferocious, lions sit at the top of the food chain. It is no wonder that our Sages urge us to follow in the footsteps of the lion in the service of our Creator. "Awake like a lion to do the will of your father in heaven"; "one should be as brave as a lion".
Perhaps no greater question has vexed the Jewish people as that of our relationship with the nations of the world. Should it be one of integration? Assimilation? Separation? Acculturation? Ghettoization? Should we embrace or reject the world around us? For much of our history, we did not have the luxury to debate this question; the nations of the world made sure that we were a nation that dwelled apart. Thankfully, Jews today can choose whether we should emphasize our similarities or our differences with the nations in whose midst we dwell.
This week's d'var Torah is sponsored by Golda Brown in honour of the yahrzeit of her son, Moshe Chanoch Brown Krakowsky, z"l. May his memory be for a blessing.