The Land of Israel: Its Message for Living Life

“Behold!  It is an am (nation) that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the goyim (nations).” This line describing the uniqueness of the Jewish people, which is part of Bilaam’s prophetic words, uses two different Hebrew words that both mean nation: am and goy.  Shouldn’t one word be sufficient to express one term?  Is there perhaps some nuance that each word expresses?

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1874 – 1941), the great Lithuanian Rosh Yeshiva and Torah scholar whose life was tragically cut short by the Nazis, explained[1] that there is actually a significant difference between the two that highlights a special aspect of the Jewish historical experience.  He said that the word goy connotes a nation that dwells in its own homeland, whereas the word am implies a group of people that share a common language, culture, or appearance although they technically have no land or nation of their own.  Their weakness, however, gives them a special strength.  The goy enjoys the benefits of a homeland, but is dependent on it for its identity.  The am can remain united and distinct wherever it may be.

He proceeds to interpret the entire verse according to this distinction.  The Jews are “an am that will dwell in solitude,” that is, they are not dependant on a land to express their national identity (“Solitude” evidently refers to independence not just from other people but even from needing a land).  They will also “not be reckoned among the goyim,” which means that even when they actually do obtain a land, they will relate to it differently than other nations.  Since they do not need it to define their nationhood, they can focus on utilizing it for the opportunities for its sanctity and the Mitzvot that it affords them.

The macro perspective of how the entire nation can relate to the Land of Israel can be scaled down to a particular lesson as well.  Just as the Almighty gave us a land with the vision that we are to utilize it for spiritual as well as material goals, so too does He give us our personal possessions, and even our very physical health and strength, with a similar vision.  The Jewish people are charged to use their tools – their land, possessions, and talents – to be a beacon of spirituality and dedication to God.  The more we each demonstrate this in our own lives and together as a nation, ever the brighter will our beacon shine.


[1]  Cited in Shternbuch, Moishe Ta’am VeDaas Al HaTorah. Jerusalem, Israel, Vol. II p. 120

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