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: Not Just a Funny Story

This week the Torah abruptly turns away from stories of Israelite society in terrifying disarray to what seems at first glance to be an absurd parable: a frightened king, a greedy hired mercenary, and a talking ass – and none of them are Jewish. Perhaps this week might offer some comic relief? Let the camera turn elsewhere, and the media pick up a different, feel-good story?

Not so much. When we look closer, and allow the parable to do its work of telling truth in disguise, layers of illumination unfold before us.

King Balak of Mo’ab sees a group of migrants encamped at the borders of the land in which the Moabites dwell. He worries that the Israelites and their herds of animals will consume the resources of his land. Determined to drive them off, he seeks out Bil’am, a locally famous seer. The plan is for Bil’am to curse the Israelite people; as the Midrash explains, “to kill them with words”.

Bil’am, offered riches for his work, accepts the mission and travels to the King. On his way, the donkey he is riding begins to act strangely, shrinking from forward movement, turning off the road to one side and then the other. Bil’am, seeing no reason for the donkey’s behavior, beats her, seeking to force her forward. Finally she lies down – and he beats her again.

This premise is strikingly familiar: the powerful leader, threatened by a group seen as foreign, hires a maker of words to vilify and so to destroy them. The mercenary who accepts the job harms not only the target group but everyone around, everyone associated with the word-making, everyone who reads and hears the words. And then there’s the donkey, the only one exhibiting any common sense:

Bil’am was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned into the field; and Bil’am struck the ass. Then the Angel stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, and the ass saw, and thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Bil’am’s foot, and he struck her again. The Angel then stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn. The ass saw the Angel, and she lay down under Bil’am; and Bil’am’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. 

G*d opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Bil’am: ‘What have I done to you, that you beat me these three times?’ 

Bil’am said to the ass: ‘Because you have make me a mockery; if only it was a sword instead I would have killed you.’ 

The ass said to Bil’am: ‘Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long until this day? have I ever done anything like this before?’ He said: ‘Well, no.’ 

Then G*d opened the eyes of Bil’am, and he saw the Angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.  (Numbers 22.23-31 excerpted)

The parable may be explained: 

The King is no one person, but rather those who allow, encourage, support, or simply stand by. Without them the curse-makers would have neither audience nor power. This week, once again, the King is those who support violence against those they define as Other.

The mercenary is no one person, but rather those who carry out the mandate of the King: those who carry out the violence. This week, they are those who beat up peaceful protestors, those who vote for hate, those who shoot. Like Bil’am, they, and we who are carried along with them, cannot see the catastrophic destruction that lies directly ahead in the path we are taking.

And the donkey, this week, is Charles Kinsey, a behavioral therapist in North Miami, who in the course of taking care of a patient with autism who had run away from a group home was shot while lying on the ground. Bil’am is so busy being embarrassed because his servants are laughing at his inability to control his ride that he does not even notice that the animal is suddenly expressing human sensibilities – moreso than any human in the story.

In the end, King Balak does not succeed. Bil’am attempts to create a curse on the Israelites, but it is turned into a beautiful song of praise, the Mah Tovu. And the donkey with common sense is justified, in the end, by G*d. The Israelites in their peaceful encampment on the steppes of Moab don’t even seem to know what’s going on.

Neither do we, and there is no respite today from horror either. We, who have no clear sense of how to turn a curse into a blessing, can only look around and wonder how we might learn to more closely listen to the voice of our own G*d given common sense – even if it seems to be awakened from an unlikely place. Even – perhaps especially – if it seems to be coming from that at which we are angry, or that of which we are afraid. The Other, after all, is a part of the All of which you and I are also, after all, a part. We have to realize what we don’t know, and calm down enough to seek out and listen to the human sensibility we need.

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.