A Nation that Dwells Alone


A Blessing or Curse?

Bilam gives four blessings to the nation of Israel, each with its own unique images and message.  The first blessing (Bemidbar 23:7-10) is the shortest and least complex. After a brief introduction explaining his inability to curse those whom Hashem has no wish to harm, Bilam declares:


(ט) כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב. (י) מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב וּמִסְפָּר אֶת רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ.

(9) For from the top of the rocks I see him, And from the hills I behold him: Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, And shall not be reckoned among the nations. (10) Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, Or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, And let mine end be like his!

The second of these verses, in which Bilam speaks of the vastness of the nation and expresses his personal desire to share the fate of the Israelites, certainly appears to be a blessing.  Is the same true regarding the first verse in which he describes Israel as a "people which dwells alone" and which is "not reckoned among the nations"?  Is it a blessing to be isolated?  Might the nation of Israel indeed be better off were it not viewed as a power by the nations of the world? 

Additional Questions

The brief passage raises several other questions as well:

  • What is the connection between the various parts of Bilam's speech?  How does the fact that the nation is numerous relate to its being alone? 
  • To what time period is Bilam referring? His words "I see / behold them" suggest that he might be speaking of the present, yet his wish that his end be similar to that of Israel implies that he is referring, instead, to the future destiny of the nation.
  • The word "בָּדָד" appears in only two other verses in Torah, both of which use it to describe the nation or Hashem's relationship to it.  Devarim 32 states, "י"י בָּדָד יַנְחֶנּוּ וְאֵין עִמּוֹ אֵל נֵכָר", while Devarim 33 declares, "וַיִּשְׁכֹּן יִשְׂרָאֵל בֶּטַח בָּדָד".  What light might these verses shed on Bilam's blessing?  Do they have a parallel or different message?  How is the word "בָּדָד" to be understood in each?
  • How does this blessing of Bilam relate to his other three blessings?
  • Is Bilam a mouthpiece for the Torah's own values, or should his words be taken with a grain of salt?
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the Torah advocating for isolationism?  If yes, would this apply to the religious sphere only, or also to general culture, economics, politics, etc.?