Spiritual Dust - חוקת בלק

Friday, 30 June, 2023 - 10:49 am

Spiritual Dust 

Billam, the gentile prophet hired to curse the Jewish people, arrived at the eastern bank of the Jordan River, where the Jewish people camped. Try as he may, his plan to evoke G-d's wrath against the Jews failed, and instead, he expressed the most eloquent and poetic praises of the Jewish people found in all of the Torah. 

Amongst the blessings, Billam said: 

Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his." (Numbers 23:10)

Rashi, the foremost Biblical commentator, addresses the meaning of "the dust of Jacob". If Billam's sole intention was to highlight that the people were numerous ("who counted?"), then why refer to them as "the dust of Jacob"? Rashi offers two interpretations; the following is the second one: 

The dust of Jacob: The number of mitzvot they fulfill with dust are innumerable: "You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey [together]"; "You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds", the ashes of the red cow, the dust used for a woman suspected of infidelity, and others similar to these.

Rashi explains that the "dust of Jacob'' refers not to the Jewish people themselves but rather to the commandments that are fulfilled with the earth, the commandments regarding agriculture, and other examples. But why, of all the commandments of the Torah, did Billam single out these specific commandments? Why was he so impressed with "the dust of Jacob", the commandments performed with the earth?  

Billam was a profoundly spiritual man; the Talmud explains that his level of prophecy was on par with Moses. The spirituality of the Jewish people, per se, would not impress him as he was immersed in his own form of spirituality. 

What awed and astonished him, causing him to offer the most beautiful praises of the people, was the radical idea that spirituality must express itself in "the dust". That closeness to G-d must express itself in how we live our mundane physical lives; that the test of intimacy with G-d is expressed not in gazing at the stars but right here on earth. For the mission of the Jewish people is to educate the world that the purpose of creation is to sanctify the earth, to make it a place hospitable to goodness and kindness, and to create an abode for the Divine presence in the most spiritually distant plane, right here, on the dust of the earth. 

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