The Pianist &
The Music of Human Dignity
The book The Pianist is the remarkable true story of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Half crazed and half starved, having lived through the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi occupation, in 1944 Szpilman was facing the ominous prospect of being sent to a concentration camp to be killed like the rest of his family. He crawled into a house in Warsaw, where he expected to die. Yet his salvation came from a most unlikely source. Wilm Hosenfeld, bearer of the Iron Cross for gallantry in the First World War, was a Nazi officer who, in that shell-pocked house, forgot the Fuehrer he once idolised and the regime he promised to serve faithfully until his death. Discovering the talented pianist, Hosenfeld rediscovered his humanity and concern for the dignity of mankind and hid and fed him, thus saving his life.
This week’s sidrah records the audaciousness displayed by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam in flagrantly disregarding the clear advice offered by God not to attempt to curse His people (Bemidbar). Why did God attempt to dissuade the wicked Bilam from attempting to curse the Israelites? Surely He knew that He would later intervene to turn those attempted curses into blessings!
Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar (known as the Ohr Hachaim, d.1743) avers that despite Bilam clearly choosing a path of evil against the Divine Will and casting himself as the enemy of His people, God nevertheless remained concerned for Bilam’s human dignity. This was why God tried to initially dissuade him, even though, had He been successful, those blessings would never have been said.
God’s concern for Bilam’s dignity emerges again later in the sidrah. God rebuked Bilam through the wonders of his talking she-donkey. This was a miraculous display of Divine will. A less known postscript to the story is detailed by Rashi (d.1105). He relates a Midrash that, whilst Bilam survived this encounter, the donkey was actually killed by the angel, lest people see the donkey and be prompted to mock Bilam, saying “this is the donkey that overcame Bilam” (ibid 22:33).
For Bilam’s donkey to have remained alive would have constituted a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. It would have been living testimony to God’s creation and control of the universe. The humiliation that Bilam would have suffered would itself be honouring God’s Name. Yet, the dignity of a human being, even of the wicked, is so valuable that God preferred His own honour being set aside rather than a human being suffering a degradation and humiliation.
Hosenfeld’s transformation into becoming an unlikely hero and saviour of countless Jewish lives began in earnest up on discovering the pianist Szpilman. Hearing Szpilman play Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor rekindled Hosenfeld’s own humanity, care and concern for the dignity of others.
Both Bilam’s story and the example of Hosenfeld are timely reminders that we are enjoined to emulate God in all of His ways, including a genuine concern and sensitivity for the wellbeing for humanity as a whole. The concern for human dignity transcends borders and divisions, and behoves us to attempt to prevent the unwarranted humiliation of friend and foe alike.