Fortifying Our Ideological Walls

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It is doubtful whether there was another anti-Semite as dangerous as Bilam, the gentile seer about whom we read this month, who attempted to place a curse upon Beneh Yisrael so they would be annihilated.  Gd prevented Bilam  from placing this curse, transforming his curses into beautiful blessings. 

There were other enemies who desired and planned to annihilate the entire Jewish nation, but Bilam was likely the one with the greatest capabilities to succeed.  Hitler ym”sh had to contend with world powers who stood in his way, and Haman’s plot depended on the goodwill of Ahashverosh, which proved fickle.  Bilam, however, had the key.  The Gemara (Berachot 7a) teaches that Bilam knew the precise moment of the day when Gd becomes angry, and planned to curse Beneh Yisrael at that time.  Bilam had special “inside information” about when Beneh Yisrael lost the protection of Gd’s special love and affection for them.  It seemed like a foolproof plan – but Gd saved His nation by not growing angry at all during the period when Bilam attempted to place his curse upon them. 

Ironically, Bilam also gave us the most precious gift we could receive – telling us, very explicitly, how we are protected from our enemies, what prevents them from executing their plan to destroy us. 

 

The Letters of Isolation 

In his first blessing, Bilam explains why Gd did not permit him to curse Beneh Yisrael: “Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yit’hashav – They are a nation that dwells in solitude, and it is not counted among the other peoples” (Bamidbar 23:9).  We are protected from our enemies’ “curses,” from their attempts to harm us, when we dwell alone, in “isolation,” retaining our distinct identity, values, traditions and lifestyles.  Throughout our history, there have been Jews who thought that we can earn the gentiles’ favor through assimilation, by living as they do, by embracing their beliefs and customs.  But Bilam revealed to us the truth – that it is specifically through our remaining “badad,” separate and distinct, that we earn Gd’s protection. 

Notably, Bilam here uses the word “hen” – the feminine form of the word “hem” (they).  Normally, a group of people consisting of both men and women are referred to with the word “hem,” yet, for some reason, Bilam chooses “hen.” 

The commentators explain the significance of the word “hen” in this context based on the shared quality of the two letters that comprise this word – heh and nun.  The gematria (numerical value) of heh is 5, and of nun is 50.  These two letters have no “partner.”  To form 10, the number 1 is joined with the number 9; the number 2 is joined with the number 8, and so on, but 5 has no other number that it can pair with to form 10.  Of course, the same is true of the number 50 when it comes to reaching 100.  It has no “partner;” there is no other multiple of 10 with which it can combine to form 100. 

This is the deeper meaning of Bilam’s pronouncement, “Hen am levadad yishkon.”  The Jewish Nation is like heh and nun – alone, without ever joining a different nation. 

Developing this point further, in addition to the standard 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, there are also five otiyot sofiyot – special letters that appear at the end of words.  A chaf at the end of a word is changed to a special letter known as chaf sofit, and this is true also of the letters mem, nun, peh, and tzadi.  As these five letters are added at the end of the alphabet, their gematria values continue the final letters of the alphabet.  The last four letters – kuf, resh, shin, and tav – equal, respectively, the numbers 100, 200, 300 and 400, incrementally increasing by 100.  Accordingly, the chaf sofit equals 500; the mem sofit equals 600; the nun sofit equals 700; the peh sofit equals 800; and the tzadi sofit equals 900.  Among these five letters, each can be paired with a different one to form 1,000 – except the chaf sofit, which equals 500, and thus has no partner. 

It turns out, then, that heh, nun and chaf sofit are what we might call the three “letters of isolation,” letters which signify solitude and separateness, remaining alone and distinct. 

On this basis, some have explained the verse in Shir Hashirim (1:15) in which Gd exclaims about the Jewish Nation, “Hinach yafah ra’ayati – Behold, my beloved, you are beautiful.”  The word hinach is formed by these three letters – heh, nun and chaf sofit.  We are truly “beautiful” in Gd’s eyes when we retain our distinctive identity, when we remain isolated, when we resist the lure of foreign influence, and preserve our unique traditions, values and lifestyle. 

 

Breaching Yaakov Avinu’s Wall 

The rabbis associate Bilam with Lavan – the uncle and father-in-law of our patriarch Yaakov, with whom Yaakov lived for twenty years.  Some claim that Bilam and Lavan were actually the same person (which would mean that he lived an exceptionally long life), whereas others maintain that Bilam was a descendant of Lavan, or a gilgul – a reincarnation of Lavan’s soul.  Regardless, these two villains are seen as closely connected to one another. 

The story of Yaakov and Lavan reflects this theme of “levadad yishkon,” Am Yisrael’s isolation from other nations.  As mentioned, Yaakov lived in Lavan’s home and married his daughters, until the time came for him to leave and return to the Land of Israel.  After he left, Lavan frantically pursued him, and angrily berated him.  Finally, Yaakov and Lavan made a truce, and committed to keep away from one another.  Yaakov and his family assembled stones and set up a wall to form a physical separation between them and Lavan, and Yaakov and Lavan both promised not to cross that wall for the purpose of inflicting harm on the other (Beresheet 31:48-53).  This wall represents the barriers that we must erect between us and the other nations, the preservation of our distinct identity, faith, values and lifestyle. 

Interestingly enough, the Midrash draws a connection between this wall and the story of Bilam. 

As Bilam journeyed to Moav, the nation which had summoned him to curse Beneh Yisrael, an angel sent by Gd tried blocking Bilam’s path on three separate occasions.  The second time was when Bilam traveled on a road surrounded on both sides by a wall, and the angel obstructed the way.  Bilam’s donkey, attempting to circumvent the obstacle, crushed Bilam’s leg against one of the side walls, injuring him (Bamidbar 22:25).  The Midrash comments that this wall was none other than the structure which Yaakov Avinu had built as a symbol of the separation between him and Lavan.  Bilam – who was either Lavan himself, or an heir of Lavan – violated the oath that was taken, by crossing this point with the intention of annihilating Yaakov’s offspring.  For this reason, his leg was crushed against this wall, as a punishment for violating his word. 

Bilam’s strategy was to cross the barrier, to break the separation between Beneh Yisrael and other nations.  He understood that the only way to cause Beneh Yisrael’s downfall was by erasing this dividing line, and bringing Beneh Yisrael under foreign influence.  However, he quickly discovered that this attempt failed, as Gd forced him to pronounce, “Hen am levadad yishkon” – that Beneh Yisrael indeed lived in a state of badad, separate and apart from the other nations of the world. 

 

The Tragedy of Ba’al Pe’or 

Sadly, Bilam’s efforts did not entirely fail. 

After Bilam’s three unsuccessful attempts to curse Beneh Yisrael, the king of Moav angrily sent him home.  Before he left, however, Bilam unveiled a sinister plot through which Moav could defeat Gd’s treasured nation.  He advised the people of Moav to set up shops to catch Beneh Yisrael’s attention, and the women running the stores would then lure their new customers to immorality and idol-worship.  This scheme nearly succeeded, as many among Beneh Yisrael engaged in illicit relationships with Moavite women, and worshipped their deity, Ba’al Pe’or.  In response, Gd unleashed a plague which killed 24,000 members of the nation.  He later told Moshe that He would have annihilated Beneh Yisrael entirely if not for Pinhas’ act of zealotry, striking two public violators (Bamidbar 25:11). 

Tragically, Bilam found a way to “breach the wall,” to bring Beneh Yisrael together with other nations.  Having been unable to curse Beneh Yisrael because “levadad yishkon,” they were living separate and apart from other peoples, he urged Moav to entice Beneh Yisrael, to catch their attention and draw them close, and once this happened, Beneh Yisrael found themselves worshipping Ba’al Pe’or, a foreign deity, for which they were nearly eradicated. 

In our reality, of course, we cannot live “badad” in the sense of physical or geographic isolation.  No one is realistically recommending that we seclude ourselves and avoid all interaction with non-Jews.  This is neither feasible nor desirable; to the contrary, interacting with gentiles allows us the opportunity to create a kiddush Hashem, to bring glory to our nation and to Gd Himself.  But while we are not suggesting erecting physical barriers between us and other peoples, it is imperative that we build and maintain ideological barriers.  If Moav succeeded in luring Beneh Yisrael away from Gd by drawing their attention through their alluring merchandise, what can be said about our current situation, where distractions and lures are all around us.  

We are more vulnerable than ever to the modern-day versions of Ba’al Pe’or, to foreign values and lifestyles, which our society markets to us as morally and intellectually superior to our ancient religion.  For Torah and the Jewish Nation to survive, we must remain “levadad,” separate and alone.  We must not fear or feel intimidated by the scorn and derision with which society views our beliefs and customs.  Our nation exists today precisely because earlier generations heroically resisted foreign influences and retained their fealty to our ancient traditions even in the face of unrelenting pressure.  We must follow their lead, and, especially in our time, continually fortify the ideological and cultural barriers between us and the surrounding society, firmly retaining our unwavering devotion to Gd and to the Torah He gave us at Sinai.