Balak: Better Depressed Than Dead!

In this week’s Torah portion, King Balak of Moab hires the prophet Balaam to: “Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.”  Balaam describes Israel as “a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” Balak, 23:7-9  It’s a chilling prophecy.  

In his book, The Prime Ministers, Yehuda Avner, translator, speech-writer, and aide to many of Israel’s early leaders, recounts the following episode from a Torah study session he attended at the home of Menachem Begin during which Balaam’s statement was discussed:     

Begin: “One does not have to be a mystic for the imagination to be stirred by such an improbable vision of a nation forever ‘dwelling alone.’ Is it not a startlingly accurate prophecy of our Jewish people’s experience in all of history?” 

Avner: Even as he was saying this, I vividly recalled the remark Prime Minister Gold Meir had once made about how lonely she invariably felt when attending a session at the United Nations.  “We have no family there,” she had said. “Israel is entirely alone there.  But why should that be?”  Being a socialist, with no bent for theology, Golda Meir had made no attempt to answer her own momentous question.  But now Menachem Begin was opening discussion on this indisputable reality.

This week, I spent most of two days at Yad Vashem, the Museum of Holocaust History.  When I then mentioned this to three people, one in the US and two in Israel, all three responded with the same question: Why would you do that?  

I took their question to mean that although a single visit is understandable and perhaps even “mandatory” -- TripAdvisor ranks Yad Vashem as the number-one Jerusalem “attraction” -- why choose to go back to, or spend more time than “necessary” in, such an extremely depressing place?

While it’s a completely understandable question, I find it very disturbing.  It implies that “having a good time,” or avoiding exposing oneself to unpleasant experiences, is more important than learning about our history, educating ourselves (and our children) about the good and evil in the world around us, and especially contemplating what we must, unfortunately, do to protect ourselves.  

Is enjoyment really our highest priority for our free time?  Better that we invite sadness and depression about evil and threats to our existence than ignore them to feel better! 

Vad Vashem masterfully guides visitors through innumerable photographs, letters, videos, audio narratives, text boards, artifacts, physical recreations, and other materials related to Holocaust history.  Contrary to what one might assume (or perhaps recall from a short visit years ago), the great majority of the exhibits are not graphic and sickening photos of the death camps.  Rather, they are extremely interesting and educational presentations that attempt to probe and portray the experiences of Jews in Europe throughout the pre-war, war, and immediate post-war periods. (For a two-minute virtual tour, visit: )

Due to the sheer scale of the holocaust, or Shoah, the curators introduce the stories of numerous individuals to help the visitor feel and understand.  In video interviews, survivors recount their usually happy childhoods in families who felt completely safe and accepted in their communities, large and small, throughout Europe.

How did this begin to change, and why? What accounted for the Nazi’s rise to power, their virulent program of anti-Semitism, and their unprecedented ability to implement it on a massive, meticulously planned and executed industrial scale?  

Why did the majority of the population not only accept but indeed enthusiastically support and assist with discrimination, persecution, arrests, and deportation of Jews among them?  (The interviewees, who, eventually immigrated to Israel after lengthy periods in refugee/displaced person camps, express shock and continuing disbelief at how their closest friends and neighbors cheered and jeered as they, their parents, and grandparents were informed upon, rounded up, humiliated and abused, and carted away).  

Why, with few exceptions, did the world largely take no action? Why weren’t immigration restrictions eased while escape was still possible? Why weren’t railroad tracks and crematoria a mere five miles away from bombed military targets also hit, despite repeated pleas from Jewish groups?  Post-war survivors not resettled?  Returning refugees met with resentment, abuse, and more violence?  

Yad Vashem attempts to grapple with all these and many similar social, psychological, and existential questions that probe the reality of Jewish European existence during the 1930s and 1940s, even in modern, liberal, “enlightened” societies -- and so must we. 

I regard it as essential that all Jews – indeed, all humanity – continually confront these and similar issues, however distasteful.  If not, what are we about? 

Judaism is emphatically not about victimization.  Judaism is about affirming life through values-driven behavior.  But we can’t escape what others wish to do to us, have done to us over the millennia, and will certainly do again, if only they can.  Attending to this "indisputable reality," as Avner put it, isn’t being alarmist, negative, or emphasizing "victimhood." Rather, ignoring our history is being foolish, selfish, and irresponsible.  As Menachim Begin said, Balaam’s ancient prophesy that Israel will not be reckoned among the nations is our eternal history.  We must "deal with it," not avoid it! 

It didn’t matter, not only to the Nazis but to European leaders and their populations, that many (most?) Jews were “fully assimilated” into their societies.  That their families had lived in their countries for generations, served in the army, reached prominent positions in government, business, and academia, etc.  Indeed, that was deemed all for the worse.  That Jews had “assimilated” meant that the "virulent disease" they carried had deeply penetrated and "infected" the society.  Individual merit and family history didn’t matter; all that mattered was finding and eradicating the virus...all of it. 

It seems like fantastic horror science fiction.  If only!  But children in many places throughout the world continue to be taught that Jews are inherently evil.  That the "blood libel," i.e. that we use blood of non-Jews to make matzoh and for other rituals, is not taught in “polite societ(ies)” is no justification for ignoring that is taught it in many places, especially when the influence of hate mongers is increasing. 

It’s also worth remembering that:

•    The wonderful American experiment of legally enshrined religious freedom and minority rights remains, as yet, a very brief experiment in world history.
•    Those happy conditions do not exist in most of the world.
•    Hitler and his party were lawfully and democratically elected more than 150 years after Western Europe’s “enlightenment” and Jewish “emancipation.”  Social liberalism, once achieved, is not inherently permanent and can never be taken for granted!  
•    Israel’s independence and strong military are recent events whose continued viability remain to be seen.  
•    However strong America’s support for Israel, America has always done and will always do what it deems in its best interest, with strings, conditions, and pressure upon Israel (demands for cessation of 1956, 1967, and 1973 hostilities are prime examples).  

And so, B”H, I intend to keep returning to Yad Vashem periodically to continue my learning about and to remember our unique Jewish “status” in the world. 

Can’t get there?  The museum’s website,, provides easy access to a huge amount of organized material, including interviews, history lessons, teaching guides, photos, etc. 

Every Torah portion contains innumerable lessons.  For me, one of the most important lessons of parashat Balak is the need for eternal Jewish vigilance.  

This Shabbat, why not resolve to learn more about the Holocaust and the circumstances that made it possible, then encourage others, especially the younger generations, to do so?  Then, they will better understand both "humanity," with all its flaws, and what the continued existence of Israel, with all its flaws, means to the Jewish people. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem. 


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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb