Shabbat Balak: Fear and Loathing, and a Talking Ass

This week, parashat Balak allows us to appreciate the importance of parables to communicate difficult truths concisely and memorably. As our story opens, one King Balak of Moab hears his people talking about the immigrants – the Israelites – nearing their border:

 

“This horde will consume everything around us like cows eat all the grass of a field.” (Num. 22.4)

 

Balak’s full name is Balak ben Zippor, “son of a bird,” and true to his name, he is carried along by the gathering storm of public opinion. He turns to Balaam, a prophet famous far and wide, and puts into place a plan to attempt to destroy the immigrant population that so threatens his people.

 

“Put a curse on this people for me so that I can defeat them and drive them away. I know that you are effective: your blessings bless, and your curses curse.” (Num. 22.6)

 

And so the destructive wheels are set in motion. As a prophet, Balaam knows that his power to bless or curse is really just an ability to see what already exists. Yet his greed is aroused by the reward the King promises, and so he saddles his ass and heads for the Israelite camp.

 

Neither he nor the King can see the truth of the situation: that the death they plan for others will also threaten them. As many human beings, they believed that they could make themselves safe by destroying others, unaware of the deeper network of connection that ensure, in ethics no less than in physics, that an individual’s acts echo and reflect in widening ripples that, in the end, include us all.

 

In this parable, only the ass sees it, in the form of an angel holding a threatening fiery sword in their path. Predictably, she turns aside from the certain death before them; Balaam, who does not see it, beats her repeatedly until finally “Hashem opened the ass’ mouth” (Num. 22.28) and she is able to enlighten the human being.

 

The Torah does not record what Balaam learned in that moment; it is only when he stands and looks at the Israelites that we see the change in him. The words he utters are of praise, so beautiful that unto this day we recite them as the opening song of our prayers:

 

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24.5)

 

Were the people of Israel really that beautiful on that day? We’ve seen our ancestors act as badly as any other people – no better and no worse. Perhaps what Balaam learned was that there is so much we cannot see, and that invoking the possible beauty of the immigrants at the border was as easy as fixating on the fear of other possibilities. Perhaps, in that moment when he blessed them, the people of Moab were able for the first time to see past their anxiety to consider these strangers, perhaps, as peaceful; perhaps, even, as friends.

 

It is not enough to denounce weak leaders who follow the winds of nativist bigotry for their own political gain. Although some will denounce those of us who see immigrants as our friends and act to demonstrate it, we make a powerful statement when we show up. We have done so, more times than we should have to, and we will do so again. As Jews, we know the heart of the immigrant, since we ourselves have been immigrants, we ourselves have been strangers, we ourselves have been vulnerable.

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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.”

Shabbat Balak: Truth Also Comes From Darkness

This week’s parashat hashavua finds us in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar, “in the wilderness”, is its Hebrew name) in chapter 23. We are offered a curious perspective in this parashah. There are a few places in the Torah in which a non-Israelites teaches the Israelites, but this is the only place in which an enemy of Israel offers a truth about Israel both to Israel and to its detractors.

The truth-teller is Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not all prophets are Israelites). The enemy is Balak, King of Moab. He imports Balaam to his kingdom and brings him to the front lines of his territory to curse Israel for him. Keep in mind that an curse in that day was believed to be like a well-placed land mine today, protecting your land from all incursion.

But Balaam, having prepared himself to receive the word of G-d and to exclaim it from a high hill overlooking the Israelite camp, opens his mouth and not a curse but a blessing comes out.

How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom ה has not execrated? (Numbers 23.8)

Balaam tells the truth to the powerful politician who has hired him; the King of Moab is exasperated but respects, in the final analysis, that Balaam, as a prophet, “can only say what G-d puts in [my] mouth”. (Num. 23.12)

He had everything to gain by lying, but Balaam was professionally obligated to speak the truth as he saw it. Balak is going to have to figure out another way to protect his kingdom from the enemy he perceives on his borders.

We have no indication that Balak thought twice about it, that perhaps Balaam’s words might lead to the insight that Israel was not necessarily an enemy. One the blood is up and running, it is very hard for a human being to hear that our perception of an enemy is wrong. Yet it might very well be wrong.

Our tradition warns us to always hold the other in the כף זכות – khaf zekhut, meaning to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Pirke Avot 1.6). This literally means that we are to assume that there is merit, or at least understandable motive, in all those others we encounter, in person or through the hearsay of gossip or media. It is very difficult to do that when we already know who our enemies are.  But after all, so did Balak; he knew that we were his enemy. Even after Balaam told him three times in this parashah that Israel was a blessing to him, he kept looking for the curses.

On this Shabbat, don’t assume you know the enemies that threaten your life. Rather, look for the hidden blessings that might lurk even in the place where you expect only curses. As it is noted in the teachings of the Sages, it is only within darkness, after all, that we are able to see light. And in that light, held up by or upon someone you thought was an enemy, you might see something that will bless your life.

parashat hashavua Balak: Jewish camping

This week’s parashah is once again curiously, albeit appropriately, named, this time for a king who is hostile to the Jewish people and suspicious of them; or so it seems. King Balak of Moab is concerned about the Israelites approaching his kingdom and camping nearby. His response is to act to defend his borders, not by raising an army or passing a budget to buy the latest war weapons, but by hiring a prophet (a vocation not exclusively Israelite, apparently) to curse the Israelites. A potent weapon if he can pull it off….

The prophet, Balaam, receives the King’s messengers and agrees to go with them to the King, warning that his ability to help would not depend upon reward: “even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God.” (Numbers 22.18)

 Sure enough, Balaam arrives at the Israelite campsite, after some adventures that include a wonderful, funny cameo with a talking ass, and is unable to do King Balak’s bidding, which is to curse the Israelites. Instead, the words that come out of his mouth have become a sort of blessing, traditionally uttered when a Jew enters a shul:

Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishk’notekha Yisrael – “how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Numbers 24.5).

What did Balaam see, that he praised Israel’s tents? Rashi suggests that “he saw that they pitch their tents so the doorways should not be opposite each other (respecting each other’s privacy).” In other words, they pitched their tents with consideration for their neighbors. Each had concern for something other than just her own tent, his own view, or their own situation.

How is your tent pitched? What are you saying about your neighbors by the way you have chosen to create or maintain your dwelling-place? Do you live within a homeowners’ association, or simply live surrounded by those with whom you do, inevitably, share physical space? How do you recognize it, or turn away from it? Is your tent one that would draw Balaam’s praise?

In his book Bowling Alone the sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that one of our biggest social challenges is in the way we relate to our neighbors. We are more likely to sue than to settle an issue over the back fence. Our lack of engagement with our neighbors results inevitably in more loneliness, more alienation, and less human kindness.

May your tent be blessed by not being pitched alone.