Not only did he coin the immortal words, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov – “How goodly are your tents, O Israel” (Num. 24:5). He also epitomised the world’s fascination with the Jewish people when he said, “How can I damn (the people) whom God has not damned? A people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright: may my fate be like theirs!” (Num. 23:7-10, JPS translation).
Jews too muse on their own enigma. Whether Judaism chose us, or we chose Judaism, there is something distinctive about being Jewish that is hard to explain. Our numbers have always been small: yet our spiritual and cultural achievements are massive.
Judaism won’t let us go: we won’t let Judaism go. We don’t all fulfil the whole of the commandments, but Jewishness has us in its thrall even if some of us tinker with our heritage and experiment with eliminating one or other aspect of the tradition.
Every now and then there are Jews who try to escape, but they almost all come back. The Jewish destiny has a powerful hold.