Rabbi Oury Cherki

Balak - Balaam and Nietzsche

Translated from Hebrew. Published at the Noahide World Center website and in Shabbat B'Shabbato.

From among the many explanations of the words of the sages as to why a man who could be compared to Moses rose up within the other nations – namely, Balaam son of Beor – the in-depth analysis by the Maharal seems to be especially interesting, since it touches on the root of the matter. What Moses is for Israel – that is, the essence of the collective soul of the nation – is the same role that Balaam plays among the other nations. Balaam represents the essence of humanity's opposition to Israel.

The fact that he came from the outside lifts Balaam above petty arguments to criticize Israel for the events that took place at Shitim during the time of his prophecies. He was therefore able with his sharp eye to see the essence of the high level of the nation. He is so impressed with their greatness that he yearns for a personal fate that will be similar to that of the Children of Israel. "Let me die a death of the upright and let my end be like his" [Numbers 23:10].

However, this understanding itself leads him to unparalleled anti-Semitism, based on pent-up jealousy which eats away at his bones. Balaam's advice on how to make the people of Israel sin is not merely a petty example of evil based on low instincts and inclinations. Rather, it is a way of expressing the absolute contrast between natural humanity, which desires to maintain its status, and the demand to develop a relationship with the divine, something that is separate and transcendental, and which is represented by Israel.

Such hostile tension appears in historical eras that are very well defined, whenever the nation of Israel is ready to take on a real political role on the stage of history. The first case when this destructive ambition appeared was when there was a hint of the national identity, when Jacob fled from Laban. At the time, Laban (who was either Balaam's grandfather or an earlier incarnation of him) tried to uproot everything. The same thing happened when the nation stood ready to enter the Land of Canaan and Balaam came to make an attempt to pull up the nation of Israel from its roots.

The same was true of our generation, in modern times, when we were on the verge of national rejuvenation. A modern incarnation of Balaam rose up in the figure of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. On one hand he was able to write, "The great day will come... and the ancient G-d of Israel will be very happy about the creation of His world and His nation, and we will all be very happy together with Him." [From "The Dim Light of Dawn," translated by Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, L'Netivot Israel, Beit El Edition, volume 2, pages 290-291]. At the same time Nietzsche expressed his hostile attitude towards the fear, as he put it, that Europe might fall into the hands of the Jews, something that he believed because he recognized how great the nation is.

The main lesson of the prophecy of Balaam is, "Behold, he is a nation who dwells alone and who is not counted among the other nations" [Deuteronomy 23:9]. This gives us an opportunity to correct a common error: The verse tells us that Israel is not part of the overall reckoning, but it does not say that it does not consider the other nations important. We, who were chosen to fulfill the prophecy, "All the families of the earth will be blessed through you" [Genesis 12:3], are certainly concerned and worried about all the creatures who were made in the image of G-d. But lifting up all of humanity requires that Israel should not be grouped together with the others, so that they can be a source of abundance and good for all the creatures of the world.