Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Nation That Dwells Alone - An Amazing Discussion on this Week's Parshah from "The Prime Minsters"

When we met for dinner a few months back, my good friend Rabbi Barry Gelman mentioned that he was reading Yehuda Avner's "The Prime Minsters". My wife, listening in, took note and bought the book for me on our Kindle.
It's a fascinating read. Avner had incredible access to the leaders of the Jewish State for decades, and shares some powerful memories and gut-wrenching issues that they faced. It's really worth reading. Yet, the most powerful figure of them all thus far must be Menachem Begin. I'm not sure about his politics, but from his early days running from the British to his "amcha" appeal, I'm learning things about Begin that I find deeply moving.
Today, as I sat down to relax, I hit upon Chapter 33, which happens to be about Begin's Bible Circle - basically a Torah discussion that he conducted in the Prime Minster's residence periodically. It just so happens that the discussion he records is also about this week's parshah - and the famous prophecy that Bilam made about the Jewish people - הן עם לבדד ישכן ובגויים לא יתחשב - "they are a nation that will dwell alone and amongst the nations not be counted". I'm taking the liberty of sharing with you the entire chapter, which is worth reading. If Mr. Aviner has any issues about me quoting such a large swath of the book, I assume that he'll let me know and I'll be happy to take the post down. I'm not worried because if you read the entire piece, you'll also buy the book.
Chapter 33 The Bible Circle
Though Mr. Begin had to forego his open house, he did open up his home to a Bible study circle which convened every Saturday evening. Approximately twenty people, among them Bible scholars of repute, would seat themselves around the couch on which the prime minister sat, and for an hour or more they would delve into some particularly attention-grabbing passage of the Book of Books. I would participate as a matter of course; being in attendance on the prime minister was part of my job.
On the first such Saturday night, held on the very eve of Begin’s departure for Washington, the chosen passage was from the Book of Numbers, chapters twenty-two to twenty-four, in which the Bible records how, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel embarked on their Exodus from Egypt, and just a few months before entering the Promised Land, the heathen prophet Balaam was coaxed – bribed actually – by the Moabite King Balak, to curse the advancing Israelites and thereby devastate them before they could devastate him. However, Balaam, impelled by God’s command, and much to Balak’s displeasure, found himself involuntarily blessing them instead.
That evening’s discussion centered primarily on the evocative verse nine of chapter twenty-three, in which Balaam foretells with remarkable prescience the future destiny of the Jewish people, predicting, “…this is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations.”
Reading the verse out loud, Prime Minister Begin gave a mild chuckle and said, “One does not have to be a mystic for the imagination to be stirred by such an improbable vision of a nation forever ‘dwelling alone.’ Is it not a startlingly accurate prophecy of our Jewish people’s experience in all of history?” Even as he was saying this, I vividly recalled the remark Prime Minister Golda Meir had once made about how lonely she invariably felt when attending a session at the United Nations. “We have no family there,” she had said. “Israel is entirely alone there. But why should that be?”
Being a socialist, with no bent for theology, Golda Meir had made no attempt to answer her own momentous question. But now Menachem Begin was opening discussion on this indisputable reality.
“Why does the Jewish State so frequently face solitude in the family of nations?” he asked rhetorically. “Is it because we are the only country in the world that is Jewish? Is it because we are the one country in the world whose language is Hebrew? But why are there no other Jewish states? Why are there no other Hebrew-speaking states, just as there are multiple Christian states, Moslem states, Hindu states, Buddhist states, English-speaking, Arabic-speaking, French-speaking, Chinese-speaking states? In short, why have we no sovereign kith and kin anywhere in the world? In the United Nations, everybody is grouped into regional blocs, each bloc bound by a common geography, religion, history, culture, and language. They vote with one another in solidarity. But no other country in the world shares our unique narrative. Geographically, we are located in Asia, but the Asian bloc won’t have us. Our Arab neighbors see to that. Indeed, they want to destroy us. So, geographically, we really belong nowhere. And since membership in the Security Council is in accordance with regional blocs, we have no realistic chance of being elected to it. The one blood tie, the one kindred bond we have with anybody at all in the world, is with our own fellow Jews in the Diaspora, and everywhere they are a minority and nowhere do they enjoy any form of national or cultural autonomy.”
Professor Ephraim Auerbach, a rotund, semi-bald scholar of refinement, wit and brilliance, picked up the theme, citing classic commentators who suggested that the meaning of “dwelling alone,” as cited by the heathen prophet Balaam, really meant voluntarily setting oneself apart. In other words, the Jewish nation distinguished itself from other peoples by virtue of its distinctive religious and moral laws, and by the fact that it had been chosen by God as the instrument of a divine purpose within the family of nations. “In that sense, the Jewish people dwells alone of its own volition,” he said.
A woman in her fifties asked for permission to comment. She was tall and lean, her face equine, her dress and hat plain, and her eyes brilliantly intelligent. This was Nehama Leibowitz, a renowned Bible scholar famous for her immensely popular weekly Torah commentaries, composed in a highly comprehensible style. Deftly, she drew attention to the verse’s grammatical structure, elaborating upon and reinforcing Professor Auerbach’s comment, explaining that the word yitchashav, generally translated to mean ‘reckoned’ – “this is a people that shall not be reckoned among the nations” – was rendered in the reflexive form, which therefore gave the meaning, “this is a people that does not reckon itself among the nations.” And as an aside, she pointed out that this form of that particular word occurs but once in the whole of Scripture.
Professor Yaakov Katz, a slight figure with dour features and a deeply analytical disposition, broke in to refer to the eminent Talmudist Marcus Jastrow. Citing Jastrow’s Talmudic sources, Katz showed that the reflexive form of the root word chashav [reckon] signifies “to conspire,” meaning that Israel “is a people that dwells alone and does not conspire against other nations.”
Professor Harel Fisch, educator, literary scholar, and future laureate of the prestigious Israel Prize, raised a finger for attention. Stroking his goatee, he mused that in modern society the Jewish people were unique in personifying a seamless blend of peoplehood and religion, born out of the two seminal events that forged the Jewish national personality: the Exodus from Egypt, when Jews entered history as a people, and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, when Jews entered history as a nation-faith. A Jew, therefore, was a synergy of both – Exodus and Sinai. He could not be the one without the other, though many throughout the centuries had tried to keep them apart. Whether one was a believer or a skeptic, this subtle nation-faith individuality was indivisible. And since this was what distinguished the Jewish people from all other peoples, they would always, uniquely, “dwell alone.”
Another participant, whom everybody knew simply as Srulik, a bushy-haired archaeologist and Bible prodigy wearing an emerald green yarmulke which he had picked up at the door, provocatively remarked that whichever way one interpreted Balaam’s prophecy, it stamped the Jewish people as an eternally abnormal nation within the family of nations – and that this flew in the face of the classic Zionist creed, which expounded that Zionism’s aim was to normalize the Jewish people so that it could become a goy k’chol hagoyim – a nation like all other nations. Indeed, the central thesis of the Zionist thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly the Labor Zionists, was that once Jews possessed what every other normal nation possesses – a land of their own – they would automatically become a normal nation within the family of nations. And the consequence of that, so the classic Zionist theory held, would be that anti-Semitism would wither and die. Well, it hadn’t withered and died. On the contrary, the very existence of the Jewish State was often a cause for anti-Semitic prejudice, and this, surely, cast a shadow on a fundamental article of Zionist faith.
To which Dr. Chaim Gevaryahu, chairman of the Israel Bible Society, added that he wondered what led those brilliant secular Zionist founding fathers of yesteryear to predict so confidently that Jewish self-determination would, of itself, lead to national normalization and put an end to anti-Semitism. Indeed, once Jews became a normal people they would cease being Jews. But that could never happen, because nothing could ever put an end to anti-Semitism. In fact, one thing to be learned from the biblical portion under review was that the so-called prophet Balaam was the archetypical anti-Semite. His whole intent was to curse the Jews, not to bless them. The blessing was God’s doing, not his.
Irresistibly, the prime minister plunged in once again, expanding on the uniqueness of the Jewish national identity, saying, “As Professor Harel Fisch has pointed out, other peoples are multi-religious; other religions are multinational. But we Jews are one and the same – religion and nationhood both. And as Professor Auerbach and Professor Leibowitz have indicated, we have forever maintained this distinctiveness by refusing to assimilate into other nations. It all began with the father of our nation, Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees, who, at the age of seventy-five, deduced the eternal truth of the One God, and bolted the idolatry of his parental home in order to worship Him. Hundreds of years later we see his descendents, by now an enslaved people, again embarking on a God-commanded journey – the Exodus from the idolatrous land of Egypt – again in order to worship the One God. In both instances their destination was Eretz Yisrael, there to fulfill their religious-national destiny. Never in Jewish history was this identity severed.” Then the line of his mouth tightened a fraction showing he was about to draw a practical conclusion: “And since there can be no separation between nation and faith, this means there can be no total separation between religion and state in the Jewish State.”
This triggered off a firestorm of controversy, because while some of the scholars present took the Bible as a paradigm of God’s own writing, others related to it secularly, as a piece of extraordinary literature. Listening attentively, Mr. Begin lowered the temperature by saying in an earnest voice that whatever the differences of view, the eternal fact remained that, by any reading of the text, the Jewish people did, indeed, constitute an exceptional phenomenon in world history. To illustrate his point he picked up a volume of the utterances of Dr. Yaakov Herzog, my mentor, counselor and inspiration when I took my first steps into the world of diplomacy. Yaakov died prematurely in 1972 at the age of fifty, and Menachem Begin appropriately described him that evening as “a master of the perplexities of international diplomacy and a prodigy in the field of Jewish erudition.” He continued, “In fact, he is the only man I ever met who was given the choice at one and the same time of being asked by Levi Eshkol to be chief of the prime minister’s office, and approached by Anglo-Jewry to be chief rabbi of Great Britain.”
In closing the discussion that night, Menachem Begin read from Herzog’s profound philosophical anthology, A People That Dwells Alone :
The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a ‘people that dwells alone’ is an abnormal concept, when actually a ‘people that dwells alone’ is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel’s revival. If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy, or how the unity of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora has been preserved, one must come back to the primary idea that this is ‘a people that dwells alone.’ More than that, one must invoke this phrase not only to understand how the Jews have existed for so long; one must invoke it as a testimony to the Jewish right to exist at all in the land of their rebirth.
“So there you have it,” concluded Begin snapping the book shut. “Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist. What a conundrum!”
I have only one other question: how did one get invited to that shiur?