Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
When Bilaam was commissioned to destroy the Jews with his curses, Hashem forced him to acknowledge the exceptionalism of the Jewish people and the fact that we are deserving of blessings and not curses. Bilaam chafed at this task, but Hashem forced him to do it any way. In his first soliloquy, Bilaam said, “Hashem has seen no iniquity in Jacob and no injustice in Yisroel; therefore, Hashem is always with them and trumpeting of the King is always present.” The Sforno (medieval Italian Chumash commentator) explains that this refers to the fact that whenever we camped and traveled in the desert, we always signaled these transitions by trumpeting. (Please note that the translation of the Sforno in this rendering differs from Rashi.)
This needs further explanation. Why is this point so significant? That the Jewish people had a system and routine for traveling throughout their years in the desert is a practical matter. Why would it arouse jealousy and admiration in Bilaam’s prophecy?
Rabbi Mordechai Rogow (Rabbi in Lipnishok, Lithuania and Rosh Yeshiva in Bais Medrash L’Torah in Chicago, 1900-1968) explains in his sefer, Ateres Mordechai, that what impressed Bilaam is the fact that the Jewish people maintained their equilibrium in times of challenge and change. While they traveled through the desert, by definition, a temporary situation, they still had a highly organized community and clear expectations. This allowed the individuals to thrive and families to grow because stability and predictability are the foundation of reaching our potential. This characteristic would serve us well as we marched through history suffering unimaginable challenges. We always were able to regroup and maintain our communities even in the ghettos, the DP camps and in the face of relentless persecution.
We are blessed with a great deal of freedom as we live in a democratized world. Individualism is key and highly valued. From the Torah perspective, it is an opportunity for self-expression and pursuing our individual agendas as long as it is in consonance with the Torah. We must remember that a Jew must be part of a Jewish society to realize his full potential. We don’t “go it alone,” we need the structure and the expectation of our fellow community members to live a full Jewish life.