The evil prophet Bilaam is hired to curse the Jewish people—until G‑d miraculously transforms all his intended curses into blessings. As he tries again and again to carry out his evil plans, we are treated to some of the most elaborate language and imagery in the Torah.

We read a number of flowery phrases enumerating the splendor of the Jewish nation and foretelling our future. We hear the first references to Moshiach found in the Torah, contrasting our eventual fate with that of our enemies. It is a fascinating parshah, filled with emblems and allegories.

Over the course of the text, we find two seemingly contradictory ways of describing the Jews. “A star will shoot forth from Jacob1 is often understood to be a reference to Moshiach, but it can also be interpreted as a description of the nation as a whole or the spark of Moshiach in every Jew. The “shooting star” is obviously emblematic of the resplendent beauty of our nation. We shine forth upon the world, illuminating all.

However, elsewhere Bilaam proclaims, “Who can count the dust of Jacob?”2 which doesn’t sound quite as complimentary. Who wants to be compared to dirt? Where is the grandeur and excitement of granules of crushed earth? The only positive thing you can say about dust is that there is a lot of it, but is that all we care for, quantity over quality?

On reflection, the symbolism of comparing the Jewish nation to dust is actually quite apt. Buried deep within the surface of the earth lie precious gems and valuable minerals. That which to the untrained eye looks like a barren, desolate plain is in reality a repository of incredible wealth. We extract these costly prizes at the cost of much pain and exertion, sifting through the dross to uncover the beauty and worth that lies within.

Some people shoot forth like a star, illuminating their surroundings with their brilliance and passions. Others seem far more pedestrian at first, quieter in nature and trodden on by the crowds. However, every Jew is precious and infinitely valuable. Sometimes you may have to make a greater effort to reveal the beauty and wealth that lies beneath, but doing so is always worth the effort.