Balak and Unity by Rabbi Shlomo Landau, East Brunswick, NJ


Last June, I returned from Israel after having spent an awesome week with dads from around the country and beyond on our first JWRP men's trip. There are so many inspirational and memorable moments that I would love to share, but there was one over-arching sentiment that I think every participant experienced.

Let me explain.

The week that we spent in Israel coincided with Israel’s efforts to locate the three kidnapped boys. It was a week of great concern and tension as everyone prayed for the safe return of "our boys." We, too, prayed for our boys. We prayed at an army base, at the Western Wall, at Masada and just about any opportunity that came our way. There we were, close to 100 dads from the US, Canada and even Argentina, guys who had never crossed paths before, yet we prayed as bothers, we prayed as fathers, and we prayed as Jews. It was truly amazing to witness such a diverse group of men deep in prayer, some in Hebrew, others in English and even in Spanish, yet all prayed as one, in the universal language of "prayer from the heart!"

But it was not only our group that was united by this tragedy. Everywhere that we travelled, from the northern tip of Israel all the way to the Dead Sea in the south, there was one topic of discussion. Where are our boys? It was truly amazing to see how this unfortunate situation brought together Jews from all walks of life, who shed their differences and came together in solidarity. This unity intensified as the tragic news came in that the boys were no longer alive. In the streets, supermarkets and, of course, on social media, there was only one topic of discussion: the untimely passing of "our boys."

I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would express an idea that should be on everyone's mind: "Is there another group of people in the world that would react this way? What is it about the Jews that tragedy can create such unity?" Sure enough, several people approached me over the last few days with these questions.

Truthfully, this phenomenon is not a new one. In this week's Torah portion, Balak, we find this observation about Jewish unity being expressed by a non-Jewish prophet. The Torah describes an incident in which Balak, the Moabite king, was fearful of the advancing Jewish nation, so he hired Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jews with the hope of stopping them. An utter fiasco ensued for the king. Instead of Bilaam cursing the Jews, the Almighty took control of Bilaam's words and made him bless and praise the Jewish nation in the most special way. One of the praises that he recounted was: "Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned amongst the nations." At first glance, this seems like a degrading statement about the Jewish people. It is as if Bilaam was saying that we will never be counted among the other nations of the world, and that we will be forced to live in solitude. Yet, upon further reflection, we can see that Bilaam was saying exactly what we are feeling. There is something unique, something distinct about the Jewish people that sets us apart and is not present in any other nation or people. As Bilaam continued in his next sentence, "Who can count the Jewish people that are likened to dust and their offspring?"  Bilaam was praising the Jewish people's uniqueness in that they cannot be counted as individuals, as they are one entity, indivisible and innumerable.

This idea needs further explanation. What is it about the Jewish people that fosters these feelings of unity and oneness? Our Mystics teach us about a concept referred to as "nishmas Yisrael" or the "collective Jewish soul." At the root of creation, there existed a single soul that the Almighty broke into billions of fragments, and each of those fragments is one Jew. The feelings of unity and connection that Jews feel, particularly when they are forced to focus inward, emanate from that single collective soul of which each one of us is one small fragment. When we feel real unity we are feeling our true, most essential selves.

I conclude with a prayer that the Almighty enable us to hold on to this feeling of unity, and that it serve as a source of solace and comfort.

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