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The Essence of the Jewish People

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )


God said to Balaam, "You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed." (Numbers 22:12)

Ibn Ezra asks why God did not permit Balaam to curse the Jewish people since He could have easily protected the Jewish people from the effects of any curse. He answers that God knew that the Jewish people would soon sin at Ba'al Pe'or, and if Balaam had cursed the Jews, the world would have attributed the subsequent plague which killed 22,000 to Balaam's curse. Out of deference to the honor of the Jewish people, God prevented the utterance of any curses.

At first glance, this explanation is difficult to comprehend. Why was it more honorable to the Jewish people that the world attribute their misfortune to their immorality rather than to Balaam's curse? A full understanding of Ibn Ezra requires us to understand the essence of the Jewish people.

Rashi comments on the verse, "God does not see iniquity in Yaakov" (Numbers 23:21): "Even when they sin, He is not exacting with them." Rashi's comment seems to contradict the principle of God's precise retribution. As the Sages tell us, "Whoever says God overlooks sin should have his internal organs overlooked" (Shekalim 5:1).


Midrash Rabba comments on the same verse: "He does not look upon their sins, but rather upon their pride." Underlying the Midrash is the idea that the Jew's essence is pure and good, his soul part of the collective soul of the Jewish people. As a group, the Jewish people are tzaddikim, as it says, "Your nation are totally righteous." The corollary is that all Jews have an automatic share in the World to Come due to their bond to the purity and holiness of this collective soul. This is the "pintele Yid," the spark of the Divine that forms the inner foundation of each Jew.

Belief in this unattainable essence underlies the ruling that even when a Jew is coerced to comply with the halacha, the subsequent act is volitional, since every Jew wants to do the will of God. Until the positive expression of desire to comply with halacha becomes evident, we view his yetzer hara as suppressing his inner will. It is the yetzer hara which is literally beaten away, giving his true inner will freedom to surface and be expressed.

As long as one has not severed his ties to the Jewish people by deliberately estranging himself spiritually or physically from the community, he embodies this pure, unattainable essence. Hence, sin cannot contaminate the essence of the Jew. That, then, is the intention of Rashi and the Midrash. God never views the sin as an expression of the essence of the Jew. Thus, any punishment is only for the purpose of removing barriers to that essence caused by sin. (Or HaChaim HaKadosh and Ksav Sofer both explain Rashi's words in this vein.)

Rashi explains, in a similar fashion, the verse, "Can I curse that which God Himself has not cursed?" (Numbers 23:8). Even when a Jew deserves to be cursed, as when Jacob cursed the anger of Shimon and Levi, it is not they who are cursed, but rather their anger. The essence of the Jewish people is incapable of being maligned. Only their external actions require correction, atonement and purification.


Rabbi Sholom Ostrach, author of Midrashei HaTorah, argues that Moses' sin at Mei Merivah consisted of calling the Jewish people rebels. Moses should have reproved their actions; but to characterize them as rebels earned him the Divine rebuke, "You did not believe me, you had little faith in Me to sanctify Me" (Numbers 20:12). The designation of the Jewish people in a negative manner is a lack of faith in God, for He has chosen us and sworn not to forsake us eternally. That promise is predicated on the eternal purity of the Jewish people. One who impugns that essence, even Moses, is guilty of lack of faith in God.

Similarly, we find that Isaiah was criticized for designating the Jewish people as "a nation of defiled lips." Due to this sin, he eventually met his death (Talmud – Yevamos 49b).

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim 218) relates that Elijah the Prophet became exasperated with the conduct of his generation and ran into the desert to Mount Sinai. There the Almighty confronted him, asking, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

Elijah should have answered, says the Midrash, "Almighty, they are Your children, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who fulfill Your will in the world," Instead he proclaimed, "I am a zealot, zealous for God's honor, and the people have transgressed Your covenant."

At that point, God told Elijah, "When I descended to give the Torah to the Jewish people, only angels who desired the benefit of the Jews descended with me." God then gave Elijah three hours to ponder the point. But Elijah still maintained his initial zealousness. Finally God told him: "You are constantly zealous. You were zealous at Shittim against immorality and now you are zealous. By your life, no Jew will perform brit milah without your being present and witnessing it with your own eyes." With that, Elijah was commanded to turn over his leadership to Elisha and to ascend alive heavenward.

God's critique of Elijah is contained in the words, "Why are you here, Elijah?" If in fact the Jewish people have sinned, God says, they are not in essence so degenerate that you should abandon them. Go to them. Rebuke them. Their condition is not hopeless. Ultimately they can be influenced, and their true desire to follow My commandments will surface and express itself.

Elijah at Shittim was also zealous for God but with a difference. There he acted, "among the Jewish people." His zealousness was motivated by a respect for them. Here, however, it reflected a disgust for the Jewish people. Hence God decreed that Elijah would have to witness every brit. Brit demonstrates that the essence of every Jew is pure and holy from birth, and therefore fit to enter a covenant with God. That covenant is immutable and impervious to taint by any peripheral sin.


Now, the commentary of Ibn Ezra is easily understood. In order for a curse to take effect, there must be a flaw in the essence of the one cursed. Therefore God prevented Balaam from uttering the curse.

Even essentially pure and holy individuals can at times commit sins, even serious sins, which demand severe corrective measures. But the sins still remain peripheral and do not affect the essence and foundations of the Jewish people.

All rebuke – to one's fellow Jews and to oneself – should reflect this awareness of the Jew's essential goodness. Alshich explains the verse, "Don't rebuke a scoffer lest he hate you; rather rebuke the wise one and he will love you": Do not address the negative in one's neighbor, but rather the wisdom – his essential nature – and contrast his sins with his elevated essence. The motivation for rebuke must emanate from an appreciation of every Jew's potential for righteousness. It is only in this light that his negative actions can be condemned.

So, too, in self-criticism. When we confess our sins we say, "We have turned from your commandments and goodly laws, and it was not befitting us." We must never lose sight of our inherent holiness or belittle our inborn potential for good: "Do not be wicked in (your) own eyes" (Avot 2:18).

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