Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
Recently, in the course of my studies, I spent some time investigating the attitude of the halakhic world towards Christianity. This research led me to note an interesting phenomenon: the nearer that the sages were to the world of Christianity, and the more familiar they were with it, the more attention they paid to the nuances of that religion. An example of this is to be found in the sweeping assertion by Rambam – who, as we know, lived in Moslem countries – that all of Christianity is idolatry. This harsh assertion finds extreme halakhic expression in his Commentary on the Mishna, where he teaches that in principle it is forbidden even to enter a city where there is a church, and that in practice we do so only because (being exiled from our land) we are subjugated to the gentiles. In contrast, we may refer to the Ba’alei ha-Tosfot, who disagree with this view and limit the scope of the definition of idolatry. They maintain that the Christian saints are not worshipped by them at all, nor do they regard them as divine; they are perceived only as a way of being reminded of the true God – and therefore the icons of the saints do not fall under the category of idolatry. Some authorities go even further and claim that Rabbeinu Tam even declared that Christianity is not real idolatry; the problem with it is just the juxtaposition of some image together with God, and therefore it is not forbidden for gentiles, but only for Jews.
If we fast-forward to the end of the Middle Ages, we encounter a dispute between the Beit Yosef and a Rabbi who posed a halakhic question as to the status of a picture of “that man” (the Nazerene) in his mother’s womb. The questioner wanted to prove that this was not an idolatrous icon, since the Christians worship “that man” only as a man, not as a fetus. The Beit Yosef, on the other hand, completely forbade any contact with any image of “that man”.
Another jump in time brings us to a controversy among contemporary authorities as to the status of the cross. Some opinions claim that this is real idolatry, since the Christians kiss it and pray towards it. Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l noted that the cross itself is not worshipped; rather, it is there as a memorial.
Taken as a whole, these examples show that a view from a distance tends to distort reality. Only when we come closer can we begin to detect the details and nuances. The closer that the poskim lived (geographically and culturally) to a Christian environment, the better they succeeded in distinguishing the fine lines separating the focus of idolatrous worship from its trappings.
These thoughts accompany me as I look at this week’s parsha, and compare what Balak and Bilam saw from a distance with the reality from close up. A review of Bilam’s blessings to Am Yisrael shows that he perceived them – and their God – as aggressive and powerful, as attested to by their victory in battle. The various blessings contain such expressions as, “That nation shall rise up like a great lion, and like a young lion lift itself up; it shall not lie down until it has consumed its prey and drunk the blood of the fallen” (Bamidbar 23:24);
“Their king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingship shall be exalted” (ibid. 24:7);
“God has brought him [the nation] out of Egypt, he has, as it were, the strength of a wild ox. He shall consume the nations that are His enemies; he shall break their bones and pierce them through with his arrows” (verse 8);
“Come and I shall tell you what this nation will do to your nation at the end of days” (verse 14).
This general description reinforces the thoughts that occupy Balak at the very beginning of our parsha: “Now this congregation will lick up everything around us as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (22:4).
It is important to note that this fear was not limited to Midian alone: as we hear in the Song of the Sea, as well as in the words of Rahav, in Sefer Yehoshua (2:9-11) – all the nations in the region were convinced that Bnei Yisrael were coming to annihilate them.
This external view of Israel arose from the great distance – both physical and cultural – between Israel and the surrounding nations. We, reading Sefer Bamidbar, see that there is no connection between this view and reality. On the contrary: as Bnei Yisrael approach the kingdom of Edom, or of Sihon, they ask permission to pass through, and even offer these respective kingdoms economic incentives to allow them to do so. Hazal go so far as to assert that Yehoshua offered the nations living in Eretz Yisrael to remain there, on condition that they would accept certain commandments. Obviously, this does not mean to deny or to blur the fact that Bnei Yisrael arrived with the intention of ruling over Eretz Yisrael, at the expense of the nations that had lived and ruled there previously, but it does disprove the concept of a nation living by its sword and for the sake of warfare.
The difference is reflected in the significant discrepancy in the way that the Exodus from Egypt is viewed by Moshe and Yitro, respectively. When Yitro arrives in at the Israelite camp in the desert, he declares: “Blessed is God, Who has delivered you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Paro; Who has delivered the nation from under the hand of Egypt. Now I know that God is greater than all the gods, for in the thing that they were proud of – He was greater than them.” (Shemot 18:10-11).
The focus of Yitro’s praise to God is not only the salvation of Israel from Egypt, but also the fact that “in the thing that they were proud of – He was greater than them” – the punishment that was meted out to the Egyptians.
Moshe, on the other hand, a year later invites Yitro to share the “goodness” that God is performing for Israel: “We are traveling to the place concerning which God said, “I shall give it to you”. Come, then, with us, and we shall be good to you, for God has promised good to Israel” (Bamidbar 10:29).
The focus here is on the “good”, and the good is not reserved only for Israel. Others may share in it, too.
Unfortunately, the decree of “a nation that dwells alone” causes the nations around us to go on judging us from a distance. This gap, this distance, distorts the true picture, and for this reason the huge abyss between us is not being bridged, nor the great distance diminished.
May it be God’s will that the day will come when we can see others – and they can see us – in a true light that will bring hearts closer to each other, instead of keeping them so far apart.