What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
What Balaam's Blessings Teach Us About Judaism's Purpose
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this video, we ask an incredibly broad question: what is the purpose of the nation of Israel in this world? Understanding that, how does the purpose of Judaism affect how we should act?
To answer these questions, Rabbi Fohrman points out a fascinating connection between the three blessings that Balaam (accidentally) gives the nation of Israel and the three blessings that God gives to Abraham in Genesis. These links, Rabbi Fohrman argues, provide incredible insight into our purpose and our destiny, as a nation, and how we can bring God's blessings into the world.
I want to begin with a question that seems to have nothing to do with our parsha, it's one of the broadest possible questions that we can ask about the role of the people of Israel in the world.
What Is the Purpose of Israel and Judaism in the World?It goes all the way back to one of the very first promises that G-d ever made to Abraham. G-d tells Abraham that He will make him into a great nation and then says this;
Va'avarchah mevarechecha – those who bless you I shall bless;
U'mekallelcha a'or – those who curse you I shall curse.
Ve'nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha'adamah – and through you blessing will come to all the families of the earth.
Now what exactly is that supposed to mean? Does it mean that there are like these heavenly spigots, these pipes through which Divine blessing comes to the world and somehow Israel strictly controls the flow?
I mean, it sounds like something out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or something. Does it mean the people of Israel are supposed to put on their Talleisim and go to the top of the mountains and spread out their arms and bless everybody? Is that what it means? Does it mean they're supposed to go out and moralize to everybody, tell everybody what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong, maybe that's how blessing will come to the world? What does this exactly mean?
I believe that our parsha of all things actually explains what that promise to Abraham meant. Let me show you what I mean. This week's parsha begins with Balak, King of Mo'av surveying Israel's conquests of surrounding nations and deciding that Israel is a threat that must be stopped. He dispatches Balaam, a spiritual mercenary of sorts, to go and curse this people in an attempt to stop their journey to Canaan, to stop their ascendancy in the region.
Now in last year's parsha video on Balak I mentioned to you that if you look carefully at Balaam's journey you will find a number of parallels between it and Abraham's journey in the Binding of Isaac. For example, verse 21, Balaam wakes up early in the morning. Well in the story of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham woke up early in the morning. Balaam saddles his donkey, Abraham saddled his donkey. There are a whole bunch of parallels like this. Look in last year's parsha video, I catalogue them.
But today, I want to focus with you on some of the other connections between the Balaam story and the Abraham story that we didn't get a chance to talk about last year. Because I think if we connect the dots they reveal a remarkable kind of commentary about the meaning of Abraham's blessing that we were talking about before.
The Clues Hidden in BlessingsSo here are some of those additional parallels. They relate principally to what the angel in the Akeidah tells Abraham. The first angel comes and stays Abraham's hand and says, don't touch the lad. Then the second angel comes and says, because you've done this and you have not withheld your son, your only son – Barech avarechecha – I will surely bless you. And, as we'll now see, that blessing has three parts to it.
Part 1: Harbah arbeh et zaracha ke'kochvei hashomayim v'ka'chol asher al sefat hayam – I will greatly increase your progeny like the stars of the heaven, like the sands of the sea. So that's the first thing, you're going to have lots of kids.
Here's the second thing: Veyirash zaracha et sha'ar oyvav – your children will come and they will conquer the land, they will take possession of the land of Israel. That's the second thing.
Here's the third thing: V'hitbarchu b'zaracha kol goyei ha'aretz – and through your progeny all of the nations of the world will receive blessing.
That third idea, by the way, is the same idea that we were trying to figure out right at the beginning of this video, what does that even mean? G-d had made this promise more or less to Abraham the first time He appeared to him, and now at the end of his life, after the Akeidah, He makes the promise again; through you, blessing will come to the world – but how?
Now if you keep those three things in mind when you read our parsha you'll see those three things resonate in a very interesting way.
Parallels to Balaam's BlessingsSo as I mentioned to you before, Balak the King of Mo'av, hires Balaam to try and curse the people of Israel in an attempt to stop their march toward the land of Canaan. Ultimately he takes him to three different mountaintops, overlooking the people of Israel in an attempt to get Balaam to try to curse the people from one of those mountaintops. But each time the plot fails; Balaam ends up blessing the people instead.
Now here's the really marvelous thing, if you actually look at Balaam prophecies of blessing that he gives on each of these three mountaintops you'll find a very curious thing. The three prophecies parallel the three things the angel told Abraham after the Akeidah.
To see it you have to go to the very last thing that Balaam says in each of his prophecies. Let's try it.
Let's go to prophecy number 1, on the first mountaintop, here are the last words of that prophecy. Mi manah aphar Yaakov u'mispar et rovah Yisrael – who can count the children of Israel, there are so many of them. Oh yes, we remember that idea, that was the first part of the angel's blessing to Abraham after the Akeidah; your progeny will be very great.
Now go to the second mountaintop, let's read the last words of Balaam's prophecy on that mountaintop. Hen am k'lavi yakum v'k'ari yitnasah – Israel will rise like a lion cub, it will preside like a full-grown lion; Loh yishkav ad yochal teref – it will not rest until it devours its prey. That's the second promise that the angel made to Abraham after the Akeidah; your children, they will conquer the gates of their enemies.
Now, if the prediction holds, you'd expect that at the third mountaintop the last words that Balaam would say would echo the third thing that the Akeidah angel told Abraham; Through your progeny blessing will come to the world. Let's look at the very end of Balaam's third prophecy. Mevarechecha baruch – Israel, those who bless you will be blessed; V'orerecha orrur – and those who curse you will be cursed.
What's going on here? The Akeidah angel talked about blessing coming to the whole world through you, but this is something slightly different isn't it? Those who bless you will be blessed Israel, those who curse you will be cursed, remarkably that too is an echo from the Abraham story, it's just not an echo of the Binding of Isaac.
Instead, it's an echo of a much earlier part of the Abraham story, his very first encounter with G-d in Lech Lecha. We read it actually back in the very beginning of this video. Va'avarchah mevarechecha – I will bless those who bless you; U'mekallelcha a'or – and those who curse you I will curse. It's virtually exactly the same thing that Balaam is talking about here.
So it's like, if you pay attention to these parallels, you walk away kind of scratching your head. The Torah is getting you all ready to hear the third thing the Akeidah angel told Abraham, right? Because prophecy number 1 was the first thing the Akeidah angel said, prophecy number 2 was the second thing the Akeidah angel said. And then, right when you're getting ready to hear prophecy number 3, the last thing the Akeidah angel said, bang, instead you hear something else, you hear a remark from the very beginning of G-d's encounter with Abraham. What is going on here? Why is the Torah messing up our pattern?
The answer must be that the Bible is NOT messing up the pattern, it's explaining to you the pattern.
Blessings and Curses: The Keys to Unravel the Purpose of JudaismThe Bible in effect is saying, you expected to hear Balaam say what the Akeidah angel said; through Israel blessing will come to the world. Well guess what, that IS what you heard.
Idea A: those who bless you I will bless, those who curse you I will curse.
Idea B: through you blessing will come to the world; those ideas they aren't two separate ideas, they're interchangeable.
How is it that through Israel blessing comes to the earth? You know what the mechanism for that is? It's the fact that those who bless you will be blessed and those you curse you will be cursed.
As a matter of fact, if you really go back to the very first words G-d tells Abraham, I think just a close reading of text yields that that's actually what G-d was telling him. Here's what G-d had said; Va'avarchah mevarechecha u'mekallelcha a'or – I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who curse you; Ve'nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha'adamah – AND through you blessing will come to all the families of the earth.
What does that little Vav there mean, that connecting letter between those two ideas? It means that's how it's going to happen. Because those who curse you will be cursed, those who bless you will be blessed, that's how blessing is going to come to the whole earth through you.
What Is God Saying About Israel's Purpose in the World?In other words, what's really happening here is G-d is actually explaining to Israel how it is that they're meant to be a source of blessing to the world. Israel isn't supposed to stand on a mountaintop with a Tallis over its head and bless the people, it's not supposed to go and moralize to people and say, you do this, you do that, G-d likes you, G-d doesn't like you. It's not supposed to do any of that. It's not supposed to focus on blessing or curses at all. It's just supposed to do its own thing.
G-d gives these people a set of laws, a Torah, and asks it to live up to that Torah as best it can. To become an example of how a nation tries its best to live under G-d, to do G-d's will in the world.
If it succeeds in becoming that kind of model society, if it follows these laws in the Torah and the guidance the Torah gives it, blessing will come to the world. Because some people are going to like what Israel does and some people aren't going to like what it does. If it succeeds beyond anyone's wildest dreams, some people will still like what it does and some people will hate what it does. But that's going to be how blessing is going to come to the world. Because the people who bless Israel when Israel succeeds in its mission, they're going to become blessed, they're opening themselves up to that model and allowing themselves to make it a part of themselves.
But if you curse them, what does that do to you? It makes you take those values and turn into enemies of those values. So if they're modeling important values, Israel, what are you doing? You're just bringing failure on yourself.
Understanding the Main Purpose of JudaismIn the end, Israel is being asked to change the world by doing what they can do as well as they can do it. By providing the best, most powerful example it possibly can of a nation living under G-d, striving to live up to what G-d asks of it, to understand G-d's Torah deeply and to abide by it.
Ironically, Balaam himself had modeled the opposite of this. Balak had told Balaam at the very beginning of our parsha, those who you bless, Balaam, they will be blessed, those who you curse will be cursed. That was an active model, a model in which someone is supposed to have this great spiritual power to bless people and curse people. But guess what? Balaam was not that successful, he tried cursing people and he couldn't curse them.
At the end of the day you really don't have much power when you try to actively bless and curse people. You know what your power is? By doing what you're supposed to do, and let people bless and curse you, that's where power comes from.
Balaam seems to recognize at the very end that he was wrong. Perhaps the reason why he chooses the formulation he chooses is because it contrasts with his own failed paradigm.
You can't bless others and curse others effectively, you have to do your thing and let people be blessed or be cursed by how they reflect in their relationship with you. That's where blessing to the world really comes from.