Alone but not Aloof

Thursday, 28 June, 2018 - 1:29 pm

A Jew living in Berlin is the 1930s would go each morning to a café and order coffee and a copy of Der Sturmer (Nazi propaganda newspaper). His friends asked him how he could bring himself to read that vile publication. He replied, “When I read the Jewish papers, I learn of all of the negative things befalling our people. Der Stumer tells me how we are on top of the world, we control the banks, the media, the arts etc.”

In this Parsha, one of our greatest enemies, Bilaam, proclaims some of the most eloquent praises of the Jewish people. One of them “a people that dwells alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” This refers to the “otherness” of the Jewish people. (For more on this, see earlier post entitled Embracing Our Otherness -

I would like to suggest that there is also a personal application of this idea for each of us. There is a tension that is generated when we attempt to integrate our studies, faith and practice with our mundane human activities. On one hand we come to appreciate the beauty of G-dliness and spirituality. This can lead us to spurn the pursuit of material or physical experiences. We may endeavor to “float” slightly above the mundane so that we are not caught up in the earthliness of day to day life. On the other hand, we are enjoined by G-d to make this world G-dly – a dwelling for the Divine. This can only be achieved by engaging the very earthliness we are attempting to escape.

I recently heard a talk given by a colleague, in which he referenced an enigmatic Kabbalistic passage that was quoted by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was citing a talk by his father, the Rebbe Rashab. The author of the passage is R’ Shamshon Ostropolier, a mystic who was murdered during the Chelminicki massacres of 1648. He writes (paraphrasing from Hebrew) “It is good to have isolation while among people and solitude within your fellow men.” The Rebbe Rashab declared that this passage contained the underlying current of all of Chassidus.

Is he advocating for the isolation and solitude of escapism? First of all that does not fit with Chabad philosophy of engaging the world to transform it into a dwelling for Hashem. Secondly, his isolation is “among people” and his solitude is “within your fellow men.” Those qualifications do not suggest escapism or the life of a hermit. So what is the meaning; and how does it reflect the very core of Chabad doctrines?

He is teaching us how to resolve the aforementioned tension. He is giving us the secret to surviving the paradox of being a Jew who loves G-d and cleaves to Him, while living very much in 2018 and making the most of what modern advancements have to offer. We must be “among people” and “within our fellow men” while at the same time be isolated and in solitude. We speak the language of the 21st century while our hearts and souls are connected to an ancient source. We are present and in the moment, but we remember that it is for a purpose. We engage, but only in order to sublimate and transform. Bearing this in mind, we never allow the worldliness or earthliness to define or control us. On the contrary, we define it.

This then is the application of the passage from Bilaam, a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations. We live “among the nations” and are very much a part of this world. But we remain alone. We remember that we have a real self that propels us to hover above while simultaneously “remaining within.” When we live this way, we are assured to be successful in our mission of making this world a dwelling for the Divine!

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin




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