Dwell Apart, Together

July 15, 2022

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we read of the famous scene where the namesake, King Balak, sends one of his prophets, Balaam, to curse the Israelites from a specific vantage point high on the mountain top so he could see all of the Israelites in one view. Much to the disappointment of both characters, Balaam ends up blessing the Israelite nation with his words of praise and adoration instead of cursing them with his intended hateful declarations.

In fact, Balaam’s blessing is so powerful that we have incorporated his direct quote into our prayer books as part of our daily blessing ritual, mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael (“How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel”) Numbers 24:5.

However, Balaam also shares another lesser-known curse-to-blessing statement a chapter earlier, “These [Israelites] are a nation who dwell apart.” (23:9)

Our sages discuss if “dwell[ing] apart” was the intended curse that has been our blessing for millennia. Is this what has kept us together, while stronger, richer, larger, empires, dynasties, and sovereignties have come and gone? The debate has certainly shown legitimacy as every generation has had those who have sought assimilation and acceptance into the general society. A quick look at our history shows how occurrences of antisemitism increase when the economy begins to fail, when unexplained health issues infect our neighborhoods, or when war breaks out and senseless death ensues. It is at these times that the ancient antisemitic tropes begin to raise their ugly heads and hate begins to bubble up in our otherwise welcoming communities.

In other words, when life is good, what makes a Jew and the Jewish community different isn’t of much importance. But, when life gets hard our Jewish traditions, observances, and practices can be easily highlighted as “different” and separatist by those who want to blame “others” for their struggles.

Last weekend our San Antonio Jewish community was identified as a potential threat by a hateful individual who was eventually apprehended by the FBI. Although thankfully there was no active incident that took place at any of our synagogues or Jewish facilities, the emotional toll was real and the apprehension, doubt, and lingering fear of “what if” still remains.

Without hesitation, each synagogue followed its established security protocols and did what it needed to do to ensure the safety of the community.

Having received much feedback on the events from last weekend a concern was voiced that a future threat might not be taken as seriously because the end result was an apprehension without active incident. A concern echoing the story of the boy who cried wolf.

As a former school principal and superintendent, let me reassure our community professionals and lay leaders, who responded with full vigilance, that this was much more like the emergency preparations that build muscle memory and help us better prepare for the day that we hope never arrives, when a potential active incident may take place. It is truly unfortunate that we must have these security protocols in place. However, to paraphrase this week’s Torah portion, we are a people who dwell apart because sometimes we simply don’t have any other options.

We are grateful to our partner agencies and synagogues for their diligence and expertise, and to our law enforcement officers who were able to thwart the threat without incident.

Last weekend showed just how much our community is truly…



Shabbat shalom,