Shabbat Shalom: Chukat / Balak (Numbers 19:1- 25:9)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “I see it but not now; I look at it, but it is not near. A star has stepped forth from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel; [Israel] will pierce and vanquish the nobles of Moab…” (Numbers 24:17).
The interaction of Jew and Gentile is a prominent theme in Judaism recurring throughout Jewish history, and, according to our prophets, a feature of the End of Days. What will the Jew-Gentile dynamic be at that time, and what implications does that have for us in present times?
In this week’s Biblical reading, we read of the vision of the gentile prophet, Bilaam, that Israel will eventually trounce its nemesis, the nation of Moab. Indeed, Ruth, a descendant of Moab, will eventually convert to Judaism, settle in Israel, and become the great-grandmother of King David, progenitor of the Messiah!
In the meantime, however, in an effort to short-circuit the Jews’ long-term destiny by assimilating them into Moab now, Bilaam advises his Moabite benefactor to send Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men. In this, he partially succeeds, enticing many thousands to sin, including prominent Israelites such as Zimri ben Salou, a prince from the Tribe of Simeon.
I would like to suggest that this sordid incident serves as a foil to the paradigm for Jewish-Gentile relations at the End of Days. In a cryptic comment from Rabbi Avraham Azulay in his “Chesed L’Avraham”, we find that “Rabbi Akiba was the repair [tikkun] for Zimri ben Salou.” What connection can there possibly be between the major architect of the Oral Law and the Simeonite prince who publicly fornicated with a gentile woman in front of Moses?!
Rashi (Nedarim 50b) records an incident towards the end of the life of Rabbi Akiba involving a Roman personage named Rufus. Rufus would often debate on matters of Torah with Akiba, though Akiba always bested him in argument. The Roman personage became embarrassed, and upon his return home, told his wife of his defeat.
She said to him, “I will tempt Rabbi Akiba and cause him to stumble! [Then you will not have to worry about him any longer.]” She was a very beautiful woman. She came before Rabbi Akiba and, [when they were alone] she revealed her [naked] thigh before him.
Rabbi Akiba spat, and laughed and wept. She said to him, “Why do you act in such a [strange] manner?” He said to her, “I will explain to you two out of my three activities. “I spat, because you came from a fetid drop [of sperm, of which I had to remind myself, to prevent me from sinning with you]. “I wept, because in the end your beauty will decay beneath the earth.”
But why he laughed, he did not wish to tell her. Nevertheless, after she entreated him many times, he explained that it was because she would eventually convert to Judaism and would marry him. Whereupon she said to him, “And is there the possibility of repentance?” He said there was. And after her husband died, she converted, married Rabbi Akiba, and brought him great wealth.
Bilaam was sure that with the proper sexual blandishments, the Israelites could blend into the culture of Moab and Midian. Intermarriage would create one humanity without Jews. Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, believed in true messianism. Rabbi Akiba was a moral universalist who taught, “Beloved is the human being, for he was created in God’s image” (Avot 3:14).
Rabbi Akiba believed that the cardinal commandment of the Torah is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – because every human being is like you; every human deserves to be free and all humanity are siblings because each emerged from the womb of the Divine Presence (Shekhina). He believed that eventually, every nation will merge with Israel and accept the Torah (Talmud Berachot 56b; Maimonides, Laws of Kings 12:11).
Rabbi Akiba himself came from a family of proselytes, and died with the universal watchword of our faith in world unity on his lips: “Hear, O Israel, [right now] the Lord is [accepted by us as] our God, [but eventually] He will be [accepted by all nations] as the One [God of unconditional love].”
This was the goal of universalist Akiba-ism, which will usher in the true messianic age, when “everyone will accept the yoke of God’s kingship” when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and humanity will not learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4), and everyone will learn Torah and lovingkindness from the people of Israel (ibid.).