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.

The Most Important Mitzvah

It’s a Portland kind of question: What do you do for Passover when you’re gluten free? 

In order to answer this question it’s best to first consider a more fundamental question: What is the Most Important Mitzvah of Pesakh?

There are several mitzvot that all might be considered primary: 

1. have a Seder and tell the story

2. clear the house of all forms of the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt

3. eat matzah

4. observe the first and last days of Pesakh as sacred occasions and do no work

All four of these mitzvot are d’Oraita – an Aramaic phrase that means of Biblical origin, as opposed to Rabbinic (we all know what happens when the Rabbis get started on the halakhah of Pesakh – many many more mitzvot are developed!)

There is no denying the fact that since Biblical times, since before the Tanakh achieved its final, two-thousand-year-old form, Pesakh has always been a central, vitally significant holy day period for our people. It is the time when we remember that we were strangers in a strange land – Egypt – and then slaves, and then, somehow, in a way that seemed miraculous then and perhaps more so now, we were free.

That reality leads us to one more central mitzvah of Pesakh:

5. “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt” – we ourselves. This Rabbinic mitzvah is not so easy to understand. A command to remember is one thing; that, we Jews know how to do. But how are we to see ourselves, literally, as going out of Egypt?

The answer to our question is found, wonderfully enough, in a tradition which has evolved around the Seder. The Rabbis ruled that we are to raise our cup of wine four times during the Seder – once for each of the expressions of our redemption from slavery which we find in the Torah (Shemot 6.6-7):

הוצאתי אתכם – I will bring you out of Egypt

הצלתי אתכם – I will free you from slavery

גאלתי אתכם – I will redeem you from bondage

לקחתי אתכם – I will take you to be Mine

And of course since we have a tradition of questioning everything in Judaism, another Rabbi asked, “but aren’t there really five?” And suggested the very next words that appear in the text (Shemot 6.8): 

הבאתי אתכם – I will bring you (into the Land of your ancestors)

The Rabbis ruled that since not all Jews lived in the Land of Israel then (or now), as long as some Jews live in Exile, the 5th cup was to be poured but not drunk, in recognition that freedom is not yet completely real. So we pour that fifth cup and leave it on the table, following the Rabbis’ gesture, and wait for the Prophet Elijah whose coming one day will symbolize the complete freedom toward which we look for all people.

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את אצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים – “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” 

To fulfill this 5th mitzvah is to bring about the completion of the other four. And this year brings us a clear and compelling illumination of that mitzvah

that when you see a person who is a refugee on a boat in the Mediterranean, 

a person who is in a holding area at an airport, 

or a person being handcuffed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, you are in that person’s shoes. 

You can feel the waves and the terror of drowning; 

you can feel the confusion of not knowing the language or why you are being detained and the fear of what you do not understand; 

you can feel the anguish of being torn away from family and treated like a criminal only because you want to live,

and you do not turn away, either emotionally or mentally. You stay with the anguish just enough to let it mediate your choices.

Our ancestors crossed borders illegally, time after time, in order to escape death. This is part of who we have been, and it is part of our Passover story. If we are able to feel that this is also who we are, and must be, we will come a bit closer to understanding what this 5th cup means, and what we must do in order one day finally to raise it high.

Gluten free? not a problem. Give the money you would have spent on matzah to HIAS, or IRCO, or IMirJ, and raise those four cups with all the kavanah you can muster for matzah as well as maror and zaroa as symbols whose importance is in that they guide all of us toward the 5th mitzvah.