As the only narrative in the Torah that is told from the perspective of an outsider observing the Jewish people, Parashat Balak represents the Torah’s most extended and explicit reflection on the qualities that ideally characterize the Jewish people. The images that are depicted in Bilaam’s prophecies, and subsequent interpretation of those images, offer perspectives on the nature of Jewish uniqueness in the eyes of the Torah and its commentators.
Bilaam describes the Jewish people as “a nation that lives alone,” that is numerous, that avoids sin and witchcraft, that has a historical relationship with God, and that is as strong and victorious as a lion. As is his wont, Rashi looks to midrashic interpretation as he delves into these descriptions to identify spiritual qualities represented by the verses. It seems to me that Rashi’s comments on Bilaam’s prophecies can be divided into three general categories based on the qualities that they describe.
Several of Rashi’s comments focus on the greatness personified by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, which shapes a legacy for their descendants. For example, Rashi interprets Bilaam’s statement “From the tops of rocks I see them, and from hills I behold them” as an allusion to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who form an immovable, rock-solid historical foundation. Another group of Rashi’s comments refer to the Jews’ commitment to fulfilling God’s will; he interprets their comparison to a lion as a reference to their eagerness to pounce upon the performance of mitzvot. The third group of Rashi’s comments embodies a belief in an inexplicable love relationship between God and the Children of Israel; in his comment on Bemidbar 23:8, Rashi reflects that even when the Jews deserved to be cursed, God did not curse them. I find that all of Rashi’s comments on Bilaam’s prophecies can be divided into these three categories, which together represent the three qualities that Rashi associates with Jewish nationhood.
Interestingly, each of these three qualities represents a distinct philosophical approach to interpreting the doctrine of Jewish chosenness. The concept of the chosen people has always been challenging, as it seems to imply an inequality among people. In addressing this difficulty and formulating a philosophical approach to the idea of Jewish peoplehood, some Jewish thinkers have understood chosenness as being defined by the legacy of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. For example, Rav Eliyahu Dessler famously wrote that the reason for the relationship between God and the Jewish people is that Jews are the beneficiaries of the unique legacy of Avraham, and can always choose to turn to this legacy as a source of moral strength.
Other thinkers, from ancient times through the modern age, have focused on the moral responsibility implied by the concept of being chosen; as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has written, “We do not boast . . . rather we humbly thank God for assigning us a unique destiny and we strive to fulfill the responsibilities of the covenant which He offered and we accepted.” This philosophical approach reflects the second stream of thought within Rashi, which focuses on commitment to fulfillment of God’s will through mitzvot.
Finally, there is no shortage of sources, beginning in the Talmud and most notably adopted by the medieval Sefer Hakuzari, that describe an intrinsic and inexplicable love between God and Am Yisrael as being the fundamental characteristic of the chosen people.
While Rashi is not a philosopher and does not offer a systematic approach to the doctrine of the chosen people, it is fascinating to me that his commentary on Parashat Balak incorporates the major streams of thought about what it means to be a chosen people. He depicts a Jewish national identity that is defined by identification with the legacy of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, a sense of moral obligation, and a love relationship with God. May the words of Parshat Balak be an inspiration as we develop these aspects of our national and personal Jewish identity.