Shabbat Balak: the Holy and the Idolatrous

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael, “how beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” – these words, which appear in the siddur at the very beginning of morning Tefilah, are part of our parashat hashavua, called Balak. The words are those of a mercenary prophet, Bil’am, hired to curse the people Israel by King Balak of Moab. How do the words of a foe become quotable? how does the name of an adversary become that of the parashah?
The Primishlaner Rebbe explained this, saying that there are those who hide their anti-Semitism and say that they are friends; Balak did not hide his, and for his honesty he merited having his name given to a parashah. (Fun di Chasidishe Osros, in The Soul of the Torah, ed. Victor Cohen)
It’s a useful reminder: someone we dislike may still be capable of saying something we need to hear. Bil’am wasn’t even a Hebrew prophet and our tradition keeps his words so close at hand that they are part of daily prayer. It is possible to hear what we need to learn any where, in any place, if we are listening – but only if we are ready to hear that which challenges ideas and convictions we have already built our lives and beliefs on.
Bil’am spoke of both the tents of Jacob and the homes of Israel. It is taught that the “tents of Jacob” refer to the women, and the “homes of Israel” refer to the men. If we view gender identity as a spectrum, these are the poles between which we find ourselves. Bil’am asserts that both are beautiful, and in so doing evokes an embrace of all that might be within and without those tents but somehow is a necessary part of their beauty – even including him, who came to curse, but ended up blessing.
Here are some words from different tents of our Jewish community, some of which we might dislike, all of which we need to hear.
“Ancient humans looked up to the stars, modern humans down to the headlines. Both are fools.”Torat Menakhem 5742. The lesson here is that we are no different, no more sophisticated and advanced, than our ancestors. We want to put our faith in something we can grasp. Whether it’s an answer that you can hold fast as the political waters roil, or a therapy that will carry you through physical or mental challenges, or a belief you’d like to develop as strongly as a rock that never has to move – the urge to depend upon something is deep. But if in order to hold it fast we simplify it or narrow it, that to which we would hold fast will be too small, too shallow, and it will not hold.
Those small things, to which we’d like to hold fast so that they can keep us safe, those answers to the question of life – they are our idols. Your financial advisor, your doctor, or your religious belief that distances you from hearing others- all idolatry. As the theologian Rachel Adler teaches, idolatry is that which follows from any definition of G*d which diminishes G*d in any way. Calling G*d “He” and believing that G*d is literally male and not all genders is idolatry, as is believing that G*d favors one people over another, or one person over another – or that G*d can be defined, at all.
Lately the Western Wall, it too has become an object of idolatry, distracting us from the real religious teaching – and opportunity – of the moment. From a Progressive Rabbi in Israel:
As an Israeli Reform rabbi I am depressed by the behavior of North American Jewry. We have been fighting the battle for religious pluralism for so long. I did four weddings this month – all of the couples had to go abroad to be married civilly so their union would be recognized in the Jewish State. The struggle for a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel is not at the heart of the matter for most Israelis in general or for Israeli Reform Jews in particular. We have extremely mixed feelings about the Kotel for many reasons (a religious site that has become a fetishization of stones, an historical/national site that has become a place for military ceremonies…) .  This is a symbolic issue that reflects the growing power of the Ultra Orthodox rabbinate.
The general Israeli public appreciates that we are at the frontline in the battle to make Israel as pluralist as possible. They are confused by our obsession with the Kotel.
My prayer is that North American Jewry throw itself into the real struggle for religious pluralism in Israel even if it is less sexy then being dragged away from Kotel by the police while wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah.
This could be a chance for North American Jews to support issues (beyond religious pluralism) that reflect the values of justice and morality that are at the heart of our beliefs. This would demand a total reshaping of how Diaspora Jewry relates to religious life in Israel. It would demand that Israeli and Diaspora Jews recognize our real power and our real limitations. That is called political maturity.
– Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman
Jerusalem Congregation Kol HaNeshama


On this Shabbat, consider the ways in which you are distracted from the vision of wholeness you seek, that we all seek; for anything that leads us to rule someone (anyone) out of such a vision is not, after all, really about wholeness. Bil’am is a wonderful role model: he came prepared to curse (and get paid for it!) but when he saw his target, he realized he could only bless. May we look for the blessing in the most cursed of places, and in that way overcome the yetzer hara’ – the evil inclination – that blocks our view of true wholeness for ourselves and our world.

In closing I offer you this redemptive vision as the great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai described it in this excerpt from his poem “Tourists
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

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