In the 1930s, as Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and the “Jewish problem” was a hotly debated issue all over the world, the great Baltimorean journalist, HL Mencken, weighed in on the issue:
Getting rid of Hitler will not solve the Jewish question, whether in Germany or elsewhere. [The Jewish problem will continue] until the Jews learn to go from Saturday to Friday without recalling once that they are Jews, just as the rest of us put in whole weeks without recalling that we are Aryans, or Chinamen, or members of Blood Group number 4, or what not… The sharp, unyielding separateness of the Jews, marks them off as strangers everywhere… The average Jew is Jewish before he is a man, and presses the fact home with relentless lack of tact. This habit, I suspect, is one of the chief causes of Jewish unpopularity, even among those who are not rationally to be called anti-Semitic.
Mencken’s “insight” – that Jews bring antisemitism upon themselves by being too Jewish – isn’t worthy of discussion. But he does touch upon an eternal truth; there is something different about the Jewish people. We don’t “fit in,” we’re not fully comfortable, with the other peoples of the world. We are, in other words, a people that dwells alone.
When Bilaam the evil prophet rose, ready to curse the people of Israel, he found himself unable to do so. “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.”
Instead of cursing the people of Israel, Bilaam blesses them. And yet his very first words – it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations – appear to be anything but a blessing!
Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher, wrote in 1968: “There is a cry of outrage all over the world when people die in Vietnam or when people are executed in Rhodesia. But when Hitler slaughtered Jews, no one remonstrated with him… The Jews are alone in the world. If Israel survives it will be solely because of Jewish efforts, and Jewish resources.” (Eric Hoffer, Israel’s Peculiar Position, 1968)
Jewish aloneness, with few exceptions, continues to this very day. The modern State of Israel, despite its best efforts (and the deeply appreciated support of Nikki Haley and the United States), is treated as a pariah at the United Nations. Governments and media outlets all over the world bend over backwards to support the enemies of the Jewish state (this NY Times article being only the latest example). And the exceptions themselves prove the rule; Israelis deeply appreciated Prime Minister Modi of India’s visit to Israel precisely because these visits of friendship are so rare.
And so it’s fair to wonder how, precisely, these fateful words of prophet Bilaam – “lo, it is a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations” – count as a blessing, and not a curse!
In Proverbs, we find a verse that is difficult to translate. “Serve God from honecha” (3:9). Some translate honecha as “your substance” or “your wealth,” though if that were the meaning, the simpler word for wealth, osher, would have been used. And so Yalkut Shimoni (Melachim 247 21) explains that “honecha” refers to the unique qualities that God bestows (chonen) on each individual. With this translation of “honecha”, the verse yields a far deeper meaning. “Serve God with your unique qualities!” If you are blessed with a beautiful voice, you have an obligation to use your voice in the service of God, and to lead the people in prayer. Those with a sense of humor must use their unique talent to cheer up their fellow man, and so on.
This understanding of “honecha” is reflected in the root letters of the word itself – the letters “hei” and “nun.” The other letters of the Hebrew alphabet all have a “partner,” while “hei” and “nun” do not. For example, the letter “aleph,” whose numerical equivalent is 1, can be partnered with the letter “tet”, whose numerical equivalent is 9; together, they equal 10. The letter “bet,” whose numerical equivalent is 2, partnered with the letter “chet,” whose numerical equivalent is; together, they equal 10. The same is true for the letters with values of 3 and 7, as well as 4 and 6. However, the letter “hei,” whose numerical equivalent is 5, has no partner. The only way 5 can reach 10 is by “marrying” itself! And the same is true for the letter “nun,” whose numerical equivalent is 50; the only way for “nun” to reach 100 is by “marrying” itself – it has no “partner” among the letters of the alphabet! And so it is no coincidence that “hei” and “nun” for the basis of the word “honecha”; they are, fundamentally, letters of uniqueness and aloneness. (Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, B’shvili Nivra Ha’Olam)
Interestingly, these very same letters appear at the beginning of Bilaam’s troubling “blessing” for the people of Israel. “Lo,” (hen), “they are a nation that dwells alone.” Simply understood, this opening word has no apparent purpose. But if we apply the Yalkut Shimoni’s translation of “hen,” we uncover a new understanding of the verse. The “hen”, i.e. the unique gift that God graciously gave the Jewish people, is that we are a “people who dwells alone.” The aloneness of the Jewish people is not a curse, or simply a factual reality. It is a precious gift; the unique quality through which we are best able to fulfill our mission on this earth!
God created the 70 nations, and then He created us, separately. Our ancestors were called “Ivrim”, those who dwelled m’ever hanahar, on the other side of the river, apart from the other peoples of the world. He separated us from the Egyptians, removing one nation from among another. And he admonished our ancestors, upon reaching the land of Israel, to avoid entanglements with the Canaanite tribes.
This unique aloneness is central to our national destiny; without it, we lose our identity. When the Reform movement was established in early 19th century Germany, its greatest mistake – far more damaging to Judaism than its rejection of particular mitzvoth – was its conscious rejection of Jewish aloneness. Reform thinkers sought to narrow the gap between Jews and Christians in Germany, systematically cutting away the laws and commandments that created barriers between the Jewish community and the broader population. This orientation, even more than its rejection of many of the details of Judaism, placed Reform Judaism at odds with thousands of year of Jewish history, and with Jewish destiny itself.
Ironically, secular Zionist thinkers made a similar mistake, despite their goal of building a national Jewish homeland. Though early Zionists differed among themselves on a host of issues, they agreed on one idea: that Zionism would “normalize” the Jewish people, and allow the Jewish people to join the family of nations, a nation like all others. However, the trauma of the Yom Kippur war, the 1975 UN resolution condemning Zionism as racism and the subsequent isolation of the State of Israel in the international community, shattered this dream. And it is no coincidence that the movement of religious Zionism, premised upon the uniqueness of the Jewish people, rose to national prominence and greatly increased its influence among the broader Israeli populace during those troubled times.
But is this essential aloneness, this inability to “blend in” among the nations, truly a blessing? The vast majority of Jews, through thousands of years of Jewish history, would unquestionably have answered this question with a resounding “YES!” Generations of Jews, despite living through every form of persecution and discrimination, believed our fundamental isolation in the world to be a sign of our uniqueness – a necessary and worthwhile price to pay for the privilege of being God’s chosen people. If Jews are to be “a light unto the nations,” if we are meant to serve as an example of holiness for the rest of the world, we can do so only by embracing our destiny of isolation – by not blending in! The Jewish people are meant to lead the nations of the world towards holiness. And leadership, by definition, requires separation between leader and follower; only by living apart from his followers can a leader set a different, and hopefully better, example for others to follow.
The great Torah scholar, Nechama Leibowitz, points out that the standard translation of the verse “וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב”, “they are not counted among the nations”, is incorrect. The word “יִתְחַשָּׁב”, to be “counted”, is written in the reflexive form. More accurately, these words mean that the people of Israel do not count themselves among the nations! For Jews traditionally understood that it is only by preserving our unique aloneness that we can fulfill our mission in this world.
As observant Jews, we fully accept the essential aloneness of the Jewish nation; we fully and uncompromisingly reject assimilation as the antithesis of Judaism. But at the same time, those of us living in exile are often deeply uncomfortable with the aloneness that we experience in our everyday lives. When I first began working at a large law firm in New Jersey, I was the only employee, among many hundreds, wearing a kippah. I knew, without question, that the very first thought that every one of my new colleagues had when meeting me was: “he’s different from me; he’s an Orthodox Jew!” I felt different, and I felt myself to be deeply alone. It wasn’t, I’ll admit, a particularly pleasant feeling.
We spend our days in the non-Jewish world, in companies and workplaces and universities where Jews, or at least Orthodox Jews, are a distinct minority. And it’s only natural to want, as much as possible, to fit in – to be seen as “one of the team.” Nobody likes to be alone at the office, to stick out as “different.” And so we find ourselves, as much as possible, trying to minimize our separateness. We go out for drinks with our colleagues, and we make conversation in ways that prove we are “normal”, just like everybody else; we want our colleagues to know that we can also talk about sports, politics and the latest television shows.
But all of these efforts to “fit in,” at the end of the day, are likely to fail. We are a people who are destined to dwell alone; it’s in our very nature to feel like an awkward outsider among our non-Jewish peers. And so I would argue that instead of feeling vaguely uncomfortable or nervous about our differences, we should make a conscious effort to celebrate them! We should be proud that we are different, and welcome the aloneness – and inevitable loneliness – that goes hand in hand with being the Am Hanivchar, the chosen people.
Mencken was right; a Jew never forgets, not even for a moment, how different – and uniquely holy – he is.