"My mother thought it was undesirable to be Jewish," the journalist and psychologist Andrew Solomon writes in his magisterial study of exceptional children and their parents, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. "She had learned this view from my grandfather, who kept his religion secret so he could hold a high-level job in a company that did not employ Jews. . . . She would see people who fit certain stereotypes and say, 'Those are people who give us a bad name. . . . ' I inherited her gift for discomfort" (Scribner, 2012, p.10).
The "undesirability" and "discomfort" of which Solomon writes is familiar to so many of us who have felt ourselves out of step with the majority. We so want to "pass" but can't. We want to banish the disdain of others but cannot avoid the contemptuous stares. We who have experienced generations of persecution understand how the negativity of others can become engrained within us and metamorphose into self-doubt and self-hatred.
This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches. In it, we encounter Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to fulfill his commission. Balaam recounts:
From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab's king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel's doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, . . . (Numbers 23:7-9)
Balaam, looking down at the Children of Israel's camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, sums up the people's history up to that point and well into the future: "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations," he sings.
Our commentators ponder the meaning of these phrases. They note a tension: Is "dwelling apart" from the other nations of the world really a blessing and not a curse?
Indeed, Rashi notes this ambivalence of this blessing in his reading, following a midrashic tradition, "When they [the Israelites] are joyful there is no nation joyful with them," he teaches. What is the virtue of joy if there's no one for us to share it with? We dwell alone because no one else will deign to sit beside us.
This reading is especially resonant in light of events described at the close of last week's Torah portion, Parashat Chukat. There, the Israelites, on their journey to the Promised Land, request permission to pass through the territories of neighboring peoples, first the Edomites and then the Amorites. "Let me pass through your country," the Israelite envoys ask these peoples' respective monarchs. "We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway until we have crossed your territory" (Numbers 21:22). In both instances, the answer is a resounding "No."
The Edomites and the Amorites make the Israelites take the long way. The hard way. As the others are unwilling to assist them in their time of need, the Israelites go it alone.
And yet, our commentators also identify another reading of Balaam's poignant turn of phrase, "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations."
Perhaps, the Jewish people's distinctiveness and isolation is a hallmark of their chosenness. The Jewish people, according to Ramban, "Will be at the head of the world and there is no people that will out do them, and no other people whom God will look after." And according to the Targum, they are "a people apart" because they "alone will inherit the world with no competitors."
Do we dwell apart because we are the victims of contempt, persecution, and brutality or because we are superior to everyone else? Indeed, here we encounter a tension embedded in our parashah, in our people's history, and in human psychology. So often, it's only in the face of opposition and derision that we learn to celebrate our uniqueness.
Andrew Solomon, in his remarkable book, reflects on his own life and the psychology underlies Balaam's words: "I have often wondered," he writes, "whether I could have ceased to hate my sexual orientation without Gay Pride's Technicolor fiesta, of which this writing is one manifestation. I used to think that I would be mature when I would simply be gay without emphasis. I have decided against this viewpoint, in part because there is almost nothing about which I feel neutral, but more because I perceive those years of self-loathing as a yawning void, and celebration needs to fill and overflow it. Even if I adequately address my private debt of melancholy, there is an outer world of homophobia and prejudice to repair" (p. 19).
One way to understand Balaam's song and the interpretations of our commentators is to see them as an attempt to, in Solomon's words, "fill and overflow" the "yawning void" left by centuries of persecution with "celebration." We imagine a future where we will "inherit the world" because that reality seems so distant in the present. We need pride to counteract contempt. We need love to counteract hate.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in history at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.