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A Nation That Dwells Alone

By: Rabbi Yitzchak Lerner

In this week's Parshah, Bilam calls the Jewish people "a nation that dwells alone" (Bamidbar 23:9). Rashi strikingly calls this aloneness a “merit” we received from our ancestors. Very often, we hear quite the opposite – that we want to be accepted by all the nations; that there is no mitzvah to stick out; let's dress like them, talk like them, and even go to their country clubs. This week's Parshah teaches us the opposite: We are a nation that dwells alone.

The Klausenberger Rebbi z"l used to tell the story of the origin of the shtreimel. It's true that Polish nobility also wore fur hats, but not shtreimels. In order to humiliate the Jews, they forbade them from using the best part of the animal for their hats; instead, Jews had to use fox tails, with the best fur reserved for the non-Jewish nobility. They would laugh at the Jews when they saw them walking with their "fox tail" hats, in an attempt to humiliate us.


The Jews, however, responded that it was no humiliation – "If anything," they said, "this now separates us from you. We now know that we are not like you." In effect, they took this fox tail hat and said, "This will be our splendor; this will be our Shabbos and Yom Tov garb. This will be a holy hat because it shows that we are not the same." Even today, the Shtreimel serves the same purpose.

The Rebbi would continue that when he was in the concentration camps and the Nazis gave the Jews prison uniforms to humiliate them, he took his uniform and said, “This is my splendor. This uniform shows me that I am not like you. You think that you can put me down by making me different – but it's exactly this that lets me know that we are a nation that dwells alone."

There is a famous saying accredited to Rav Yisroel Salanter z"l: "If a Jew doesn't make Kiddush, then the gentile will make Havdalah for them." If we try to emulate the nations of the world and not sanctify ourselves – separate ourselves through our actions, beliefs, morals, and ethics – the nations of the world will do it for us. G-d wants us to be a nation that dwells alone.

If we dwell alone, if we retain our spiritual independence, we will be able to be a light unto the nations. Just as light travels to all places, so will the light of the Jew shine to all corners of the world. 




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