When Words Create Reality
Rabbi Yisrael Samet is a ra”m (senior faculty member) at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Lod branch
About a year ago, during the course of Operation Guardian of the Walls, the Jewish community of Lod found itself under attack – not only physically, but on the media as well. For years, the Garin Torani [group of religious Zionists who settle in communities with the aim of strengthening the local Jews’ connection to Judaism, encourage unity between secular and religious Jews, and run social action projects] in the city of Lod has engaged in productive activity. However, in wake of the verbal onslaught on us, there ensued a debate as to whether we should invest more in PR and advocating our cause to the general public, and if so – to what extent?
“Our future is not dependent on what the gentiles say, but rather on what the Jews do!” are the well-known words of David Ben Gurion. He was of the opinion that it is more important to do what is best for the Jewish nation and the State of Israel than to dance to the tune of the other nations. It was his contention that the State of Israel was not established because of the UN declaration, but because of our own actions, which rendered the declaration significant. Hence, Ben Gurion also believed that we should neither get overly excited by the UN’s support for us, nor by any reservations it may have about our actions.
Notwithstanding the above, in our parsha, the Torah seems to have very high regard for the words of one particular gentile – Bil’am the sorcerer. God tried to deter him from going to curse Israel, and cautioned him that come what may, he would only be able to say that which God puts in his mouth. Our Sages held Bil’am’s words in such high esteem that had it not been so cumbersome, they would have included Bil’am’s prophetic words in the Keri’at Shema prayer (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 12:2).
According to one of the explanations in the Jerusalem Talmud, we know for a fact that Bila’m’s words are significant as they are mentioned twice more in the Bible – once in the Nevi’im, the Prophets; and a second time in the Ketuvim, the Writings.
But the question remains – why does the Bible have such reverence for the words of Bil’am? Is the Torah actually wary of this man’s power to curse?
In the portion of Balak we are given a beautiful description of the well and the song that the People of Israel sung in its praise. This lyrical section continues the verses of song which appear in the portion of Chukat. It follows then that the Torah does not only attribute importance to what the Jews do, but also to what they sing. The act of singing in praise of something not only offers an interpretation of the event or action in question, but also infuses it with meaning. After David had smitten Goliath, the people united in song: “Shaul has slain thousands and David has slain tens of thousands” (I Samuel 18:7). These words of song conveyed an unequivocal message to Shaul: the people attribute the victory to David rather than to Shaul, and so it will be perpetuated in the nation’s collective memory. It was the song that caused Shaul to start feeling threatened by David. The Torah, it appears, does not suffice in relating the facts, the miracles and the victories. Rather, it insists on including the songs sung about these events. This is so because songs have the power to give lasting meaning.
Had Bil’am said other words – words which contradicted God’s intent – these would have had the power to harm us. Not only because of Bil’am’s supernatural powers, but simply because evil words would have entered the world, forcing us to contend with a completely different interpretations of events. It is said of Bil’am that he was a prophet unto the nations. This means that his words had the power to engrave the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt and the role of the Jewish people as a negative occurrence, and to perpetuate these as such in the history of the nations. The role of the Jewish People is to bring the entire world closer to God, by showing the gentiles that the Jewish People is driven by justice and is governed by integrity.
The Torah tells us that in future the gentiles will say thus (Devarim 4:8): “And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” Once again, we see that the Torah deems the way in which the gentiles view the People of Israel as something of importance. Moreover, the gentiles’ moral judgements are equally important.
To sum this up: the Torah does not only consider the actions of the Jews as important – it also views the words of the gentiles as being of significance! For this very reason, God Himself forced Bil’am to bless the People of Israel, so that both the nations of the world as well as the People of Israel would be able to tell the Divine story.
We are accustomed to saying that when the Redemption comes, the gentiles will proclaim: “The Lord has done great things unto these [people]”, and only afterwards will we acknowledge it as well – “The Lord has done great things unto us” (Tehillim 126:2-3). Sometimes, in order to tell the real story, one needs an outside perspective. As is written in our sources – a person is unable to see the miracle that has befallen him when it actually transpires. Bil’am’s outside perspective not only helped him give an account of the past and the present of the People of Israel, it also enabled him to look far into the future, and prophesize about the future Redemption.
The Rambam in Hilchot Melachim (11:1) wrote that one who does not believe in the coming of the Messiah does not only refute the existence of all prophets, but denies the Torah itself. The proof for this can be found in the verses of Bil’am’s prophecy which, according to our Sages, refer to the Messiah. This goes to show that Bil’am’s words did not only give meaning to past events, but also impacted the future – by reinforcing Israel’s faith in the future Redemption.
In the attic of Beit Nit’za in Lod, the Rabbinic Sages of the Mishnah debated the following question: What is greater, study of [Torah] Talmud – or action [fulfilling the mitzvot]? (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40:2).
The root of this dilemma can be found in our portion. From what the Torah tells us of Bil’am, we learn that action is not enough. Action has to lead to study. Deeds must highlight the value and the significance of study. On the other hand, Bil’am did not suffice in simply focusing on the past; he prophesized about the future as well.
Parshat Bil’am is of special significance because Bil’am’s prophecy is one of the forces that promote the return to and the building of the Land of Israel until this very day. In other words – it is the Talmud – engaging in study – that ultimately leads to action, in keeping with the Sages’ conclusion to the debate mentioned above.
Similarly, when it comes to the question of whether resources should be “wasted” on advertising or educating the public rather than investing these in constructive action and engaging in the deed itself – one should keep in mind that “study is greater”. Yes, the battle takes place in the world of practice; however, the battle over consciousness is no less important. It is all about telling the right story, which will serve as the right stepping stone for the future. Indeed, words create reality.