What does it mean “to dwell apart?”
At first blush, the phrase conjures any number of benign images: a divorced couple, sharing custody of children, living in separate homes. A college dormitory with men and women living on separate floors. A group of sojourners finding themselves on separate paths. The key word here, of course, is “separate.” Distinct, distant, disconnected. Perhaps the most powerful image, though, is the one on which this Torah portion focuses: a people – our people – set apart from the nations of the earth. One people – unique in temperament, belief, identity – separate from all the rest.
In this parsha, Balaam, the prophet for hire, remarks on the People of Israel, singing: “there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” Highlighting our millennia-long identification as the “Chosen People,” Balaam’s words are intended not only to make us pause, but also to highlight just how fabulous we really are. This parsha is typically recognized for its comedic retelling of Balaam, this prophet gone rogue, blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them at Balak’s command. How funny – and how powerful – it would be if all our curses emerged as blessings.
Yet Rashi, our medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator par excellence notes that there is a certain ambivalence there – is this really an example of blessing? He writes, “when [the Israelites] are joyful, there is no nation joyful with them.” How lonely we might feel in that often problematic state of “chosenness.” How isolated we could be continuing to live in our own “otherness,” dwelling apart from all the other peoples of the land.
We know that today we live in a world seemingly overflowing with curses; with darkness, and pain, and – at the root of so much of it – an overabundance of fear. How we see ourselves in relation to all of it can result, as Rashi warns, in a pretty lonely life. And while there is significance to our Jewish value of chosenness, to be sure, we also must recognize that dwelling apart from the rest of the earth, separating ourselves, and pulling away from the common, collective plight of humanity only perpetuates the cycle. By working together, sharing common ground, recognizing our ability to help, empower, and inspire – by changing the narrative of “dwelling apart” – we build bridges instead of walls. We promote tolerance, peace, and understanding. And maybe – through that – we turn curses into enduring blessings.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen