Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bilaam's Lion

In this week's portion, Bilaam is asked by Balak to curse the Jewish nation. He comes, and is literally reined in by God Himself, forced to praise the very nation he wishes to obliterate. In two parts of his praise for the nation, he refers to Israel as a lion. In the first (Bamidbar 23:24), he states: "הן עם כלביא יקום וכארי יתנשא", "The nation, like a (young) lion will stand, as a lion will rise up". In the second (24:9), "כרע שכב כארי וכלביא מי יקימנו", "[the nation] bends and lies down as a lion, and as a lion (cub) who will raise it up?"

First of all, I point out that traditionally, the word לביא has been taken to mean lion cub, as opposed to ארי which seems to be a full-grown lion. I have not been able to confirm that there exists this distinction in biblical Hebrew or in related languages, and would appreciate any input from others in this matter. However it is clear that traditional sources seem to make this distinction. My translation above injects the traditional sense in parentheses.

What is interesting about these verses, which appear in separate prophecies of Bilaam, is that they seem to complement each other, and the second seems to finish the train of thought left incomplete by the first. First, a young cub (clearly representing the nation of Israel) rises up, and then is a grown lion, and afterwards, we see the grown lion lie down, and a cub rise afterwards. What is going on here?

I believe that these prophecies, from the mouth of one of the worst enemies of Israel, contain not simply blessings, but fundamental information regarding the eternity and ultimate recognition of Israel's special task and teachings that is being transmitted to Moav, and, also, any nation that decides to engage in the extermination of the Jewish People. After all, Bilaam did not speak to Israel, but to her enemies; clearly his message was pertinent to them. What could be more relevant to those who wish to destroy us, than to teach them of the purpose of Israel, and warn them of their eternity, and the futility and suicidal nature of attempting to destroy it?

And so, what is the lesson? It seems to me that these verses are a hint to the ever-renewing vitality of Am Yisrael, the concept of בדמייך חיי. Let us follow the stages of the prophecy. First, Israel grows in strength from a לביא to an ארי. This is in the context of "getting up", קימה. The cub first rises, and then, after it is established as a nation, it becomes great, powerful and respected as it reaches maturity, יתנשא. This rise in prominence is a direct result of its maturing attitude towards its teleological purpose in the world. עם ישראל is special precisely when it follows the dictates of the Torah, and produces a society within geographical boundaries. When we accomplish this, we demonstrate the sublime truth and fidelity of God and His Torah. The nations will marvel, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה...אשר לו חוקים צדיקים. (Although Judaism rejects Calvanistic theories of success implying Divine approval for the individual, it is clear from the second chapter of שמע that these principles do hold true for the national life of Israel.)

And thus Israel continues, worthy of its strength, as a powerful lion at the height of its perfection, as long as the Jews remain standing, upright, in their fulfillment of their Torah.

However, when the nation falters and becomes less than steadfast in their convictions and actions, when the ארי of Israel begins to lie down, kicking out in disdain for its national destinity and mission, things change. As the second passage relates, the grown lion can end up lying down, and lose the respect and position that it had before, כרע שכב כארי. When the nation leaves the path of קידוש ה, which it maintains only through national felicity to God's Torah, then even as a mature lion at the pinnacle of his strength, it cannot continue. It begins to weaken, lie down, and its vitality flags. Exile, debasement and condemnation await the nation of Israel when it does not follow God's Torah.

And yet, the story is not over, and the weakened lion's demise does not end with his death. Rather, the verse wonders at his re-emergence once again as a לביא, as a young, versatile lion cub, ready to rise in the ranks again. כלביא מי יקימנו: who would have thought to raise him up again as a young lion poised again to rise in prominence? No nation in the history of the world has survived exile and degradation as long as Israel has and still maintains its unique position amongst the other nations. We never stopped yearning and planning our return to our land and our Father in Heaven's graces. And when, finally, we do rise again, it is with the vigor and vitality of a cub again! Who would have believed this possible?

And yet, this wonder at the rise-from-the-ashes regeneration, is precisely what our national life consists of. From the depths of our greatest failures we rise to ever-new heights, demonstrating the miraculous nature of our national existence. This is the symbolism of the New Moon, the regeneration out of the lowest point and this is why the moon symbolizes Am Yisrael. When Israel returns to God, God comes forward, as it were, to accept her, and glorious victory is snatched from the depths of the dark despair. בדמייך חיי!

Israel's enemies, with their missile launches and militaristic posturing, would do well to remember this lesson from their prophet. עם ישראל חי!