Perhaps no greater question has vexed the Jewish people as that of our relationship with the nations of the world. Should it be integration, assimilation, separation, acculturation, ghettoization; should we embrace or reject with the world around us. For much of our history we did not have the luxury to debate this question as the nations of the world made sure we were a nation that dwelled apart. Thankfully Jews today can choose whether they should emphasize our similarities or differences with the nations around us. This question lies at the heart of the struggle for the soul of the State of Israel. Is Israel mainly a western democratic secular state with some trimmings of Jewish culture, history and tradition? Or is it a state where the complete Torah system can be put into practice, where we are mandated to be a light unto the nations even as we adopt many democratic western values. Are we a Jewish state or a State of (about 80%) Jews?
While we Jews might debate this question it is instructive to hear the perspective of the non-Jew. The Torah thus spends many a verse detailing Bilaam's perception of us and what makes us tick. Often it takes an outsider to tell it like it is. "I see this nation from the mountain tops and gaze on it from the heights; It is a nation dwelling alone at peace not counting among other nations" (23:9). Bilaam understood that the more the Jew tries to assimilate the more the nations hate us. Ironic, even tragic, but a truism that history has proven time and time again. When we dwell alone ( levadad ) then we dwell at peace ( yishkon ) but when we try to be like the nations ( bagoyim ) then we are not counted amongst them ( lo yitchasav ).
"And the land was filled with them" (Shmot 1:6) is immediately followed by "a new King who did not know Joseph came into power". Our Sages understood the "land filling" as referring to the efforts of the Jews to become Egyptian going so far as to abandon the mitzva of brit milah . Even the "new king" was according to many the same King - what was new was his introduction of ant-Jewish laws. This was true in Egypt, this was true in Germany, and this was true throughout our history.
Superficially it may seem that the animosity towards Jews is based on our being different thus making it difficult for us to realize the necessity for not hiding our differences. During the struggle for emancipation the nations told us just be like them - i.e abandon your 'strange' rituals, - and we will grant you Jews equal rights. This served as the historical background for the development of Reform Judaism seeking as they did a way to maintain Jewishness without really being different. In so doing classical reform rejected a return to Zion denying the national component of Judaism. Ironically Classical Zionism took the same basic approach, trying to fashion a nation to be like any other - denying the religious component of Judaism. Unfortunately Jew hatred has not abated. The nations of the world instinctively know that we Jews are different, that we are a chosen nation. They may not like us when we are different but they surely don't like us when we are the same.
Our Sages have always taught that we must proudly remain faithful to our core beliefs even if ridiculed by the nations. We are the descendants of Avraham Haivri so called because of his willingness to stand alone on the "other" side of the river. This is the only way that we can even hope for respect, peace and a leading role in world affairs. We, unlike politicians, must not to afraid to say (no hidden agendas please) that we are against parades declaring one's sexual orientation, that moral relativism has no place in our worldview, that we do at times limit the rights of all people to choose, that money is a gift from G-d to be shared.
This must not mean withdrawal from the world around us. The same Avraham engaged the world teaching a message of morality, making peace with his neighbours and praying of the welfare of those who had not learned the beauty of a life based on ethical monotheism. As our Sages point out Bilaam did not live up to the standards of Avraham. But deep down he understood Abraham's message. Let us actively seek to make the world around us a better place but let us not be afraid to dwell alone if need be. Shabbat Shalom!