My text this morning is from the book of Numbers, chapter 22, beginning with the second verse. Balak, King of Moab, invites Balaam, who has the power to bless and curse, to help him by cursing the Israelites. Balaks messengers deliver his proposal to Balaam, who tells them he must consult with God before he can decide. God tells Balaam not to go, and he gives a negative answer to the messengers. Balak sends a second delegation, whom Balaam also refuses. God tells Balaam that he may go, but whatever He shall command, that shall he say.
Balaam sets out riding his ass. On the way, an angel of the Lord appears. Balaam does not see it, but his ass does, and refuses to move. Balaam beats it to force it to go on. After being beaten three times, the ass speaks, [Num 22:28] "and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!" But the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?" And he said, "No." The ass complains of this ill treatment. God then opens Balaams eyes so that he sees the angel, who also rebukes Balaam for beating the ass. Balaam offers to turn back. The angel tells him "Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak." So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.
The purpose of telling this episode is doubtless the humiliation of Balaam, evidenced by the strain of irony that runs through the entire passage: Balaam, who desires to subdue Israel with words, cannot even subdue his ass with a stick. Balaam who wishes to slay a whole people with his words, can only wish to kill his ass had he had a sword. Balaam, who would slay his ass if only he could find a sword, does not see the sword extended by the angel. Thus "the ass" in this episode plays the role of Balaam beholding divine visions with eyes unveiled and yet can only speaks of "past glories."
The sages point out the satirical and even humorous aspect of the story. Hubert Wolfe defined a satirist as one who "holds a place half-way between the preacher and the wit. He has the purpose of the first and uses the weapons of the second." Remember that Balaam is presented as the greatest sage and seer of the pagan nations in his time and place. What is the "preacher" aspect of this satire? How can you trust a man to "curse your enemies" when he can't even control his ass? Why does paganism deserve mockery rather than reasoned refutation? How wise is Balaam, really? He has been told that God does not wish him to pursue the purpose that Balak has in mind. Still, he accepts the invitation. Who is the donkey? A further thought: What role does humor play in religion? Should it only be solemn and serious? Can we really accept the idea that we can learn something from an Ass, even if it speaks?
Balak now speaks to Balaam: Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Num.22:6)
Since Balak knew that "he whom you bless is blessed indeed," why did he hire Balaam to curse Israel. Wouldnt it have been better for him to hire Balaam to bless Moab so that it would be victorious in war? This is proof that the essential intention of the enemies of Israel is not to benefit their own people, but to do evil to Israel, and all their rage against Israel is not a result of their love of their own people, but out of hatred for Israel. As a result of this great hatred they spoil everything and bring a curse upon their people and their land.
There is a teaching in Jewish lore that the first Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, immorality and murder, but the second Temple was destroyed because of causeless hatred. This teaches us that causeless hatred is a sin that weighs as heavily as idolatry, immorality and murder.
This is a strong teaching about the power of hatred. It makes us think of the Nazis persisting with their genocidal project even at the cost of their war effort, or the Arabs harming their own interests out of their hatred for Israel. It reminds us of the Camais-rouge killing their own people in Cambodia, of Northern Sudanese killing Southern Sudanese, and Tootzies killing Hootoos in Rouwanda, and of the senseless war in the former Yugoslavia. Why does hatred have this power? Why is it sometimes more satisfying to see our enemies suffer than to enjoy our own well-being? It seems to be the opposite of the idea that "living well is the best revenge" one can have against those who wish him ill. We have a teaching in Judaism that the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed are the three that one is supposed to die rather than be forced to violate. Which means, of course, that they are the three most serious sins. Well, everyone understands idolatry and sexual immorality, but what is bloodshed? Our sages explain that it is baseless hatred. How do we overcome hatred? By means of lovingkindness. One of Judaism's great sages, the Khafetz Khayyim, suggests that this is the reason that the Torah extends the law of doing kind deeds to enemies: (Ex. 23:4) If you meet your enemys ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. Furthermore, "If the one against whom he harbors an unjustified hatred and a friend both requested the same favor, and he is unable to help both, he is duty-bound to help the one he hates, so as to overcome his prejudices." What is the Khafetz Khayyims saying? He is telling us that we must overcome our base nature. That we must ennoble ourselves even if it means a benefit to our enemies. How, do you think, would it work? Is it because one learns to let go of hatred?
The best humor in the text comes in the words that Balaam utters in the end of his mission, the "curse made to order:" "and he uttered his oracle, saying: "The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, who falls down, but with eyes uncovered: how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch far away, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the LORD has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall have abundant water, his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God who brings him out of Egypt, is like the horns of a wild ox for him; he shall devour the nations that are his foes and break their bones. He shall strike with his arrows. He crouched, he lay down like a lion, and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you."
This weeks Torah portion, Balak, includes chapters 22 to 25 of the book of Bamidbar, Numbers. The portion continues the account of Israel entering the final stages of its journey to the Promised Land. The nation was within sight of its destination, about to undertake the conquest of their divinely promised homeland, yet trying to avoid unnecessary battles with kin-tribes. We read of fellow Semites of the seed of Abraham, who refuse to give the Israelites a helping hand, who force a battle upon them, who invoke their Gods against Israel. In this week's portion we are introduced to our two "heroes," Balak and Balaam.
Balaam was a "prophet for hire" who would go with anyone who paid his price, and would invoke blessings upon them or curses upon their enemies. He had a reputation of being quite successful, and so he was called upon to attempt to stop the progress of Israel toward the land of His promise. But, nothing has been able to stop this irresistible migration of the seed of Abraham home to Eretz Yisrael. Things have not changed in the three millennia since those days, and even this week, the President of Egypt, in Cairo, tried to curse our Jewish homeland with an evil spirit from within and without the land, trying to push the children of Israel into the sea. They continue to convince those who are tired of war that they need to give up this land for peace.
Balak, king of Moab, which is where Jordan is these days, had heard about the coming Israelites, and knew that these people were a real threat to his kingdom. He called for Balaam to come and curse the Israelites because he knew of the mighty acts of the hand of God, "This nation is too powerful for us alone, so if you would, come and curse this nation for us. Then, we may be able to defeat them and drive them from the area. I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed." What Balak failed to realize was that the Lord had already promised to, "Bless those who bless thee, and curse those who curse thee" -- to Abraham and his seed!
Balaam speaks of Israel, "How shall I curse, he whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I defy, he whom the Lord has not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him; lo, the people shall live alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." Throughout history, not just in the instance of Balak and his men plotting against Israel, we have always been alone, separate, and isolated from all nations of the earth. God has chosen us, from all the nations of the world, to be the messengers of His hope and His word -- a fact that inflamed anti-Semitic passion since this instance with Balaam and even before.
The Jews believed, throughout history, that they were chosen by God to serve as an example to the world of a people that lives by an ethical teaching of one God, all powerful, eternal, and totally without form or image. Exodus 19:5,6 gave them their clue, "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." Furthermore, the prophet Isaiah 49:6 declares, "I will also give you as a light to the nations, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth."
That may be the reason why we Jews have accepted a challenge, through the centuries of persecution and homelessness, to live in the ways of peace and grace, even in the face of persecution and provocation to violence and vengeance. For two millennia we have accepted our fate -- and we swallowed our pride. Yet, even the teachings of Judaism, liberal and accepting of other paths to God, other manners of worship, insist on the need for survival. The Talmud tells us that there are principles that one would insist on, even to one's own detriment -- "yamut velo ya'ase" -- he shall die but not commit.
God loves all of His creation. No man is more loved than another. Every nation is, likewise, equal before God. The prophet Amos states in 9:7, "Are you not as the children of Ethiopia to me, children of Israel!" Yet God chose the Jews. Why? Because they were the seed of a the great ethical revolutionary, Abraham -- who made a covenant with God in which he was promised that his seed will become God's showcase to the world. That is Israel's single merit. The chosen-ness of the Jews confers neither privilege nor superiority, only obligation. God says in Amos 3:2, "Since I have known only you of all peoples of the earth, I will visit upon you all your sins." The Jewish people have been chosen to complete a task. This people confirmed their destiny and chose to follow in the path of God, which is called "halakha" in Hebrew, and is also translated to mean "religious Jewish law." The believing Jew holds fast to the teaching that Jews were chosen by God to make humanity aware of the Lord God, creator and master of the world. Yet, those who love God and follow in His path should not expect God to treat them outside of the law which He has established, nor must they ever become arrogant in their trust in Him. Faith in God necessitates acceptance of all of His creation, animals and humans alike. It dictates respect for people whose faith and ways are different from ours. As we read in the Haftara this week, from Micah 6: "It has been told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you; only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." [Micah 6:8] Those who "walk before God" without humility, carrying their pious virtue as a passport for arrogance cannot "do justice and love kindness."
When God called Abraham to leave his birthplace and follow Him, he said, "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." [Gen. 12:3] How is that possible? The last two letters of the name of Abraham's seed, Israel, is in fact one of Gods appellations, EL. Thus, it is impossible to curse Israel without cursing Gods name which is included in it. Whoever seeks to harm Israel, is seeking to harm God Himself. God will not allow this to happen. However, the Jewish people have an obligation to hold on steadfastly to His teachings -- if we do not, we bring on our own suffering, our own punishment, for in straying away from His way we pervert our name, and become Isra... whatever it is this week.
It has been a couple of millennia since the days of Balak and Balaam -- times have changed and so has technology. Yet, the more things change, the more they are the same, and the leaders of Israel today are no different than Korakh, Datan and Aviram -- and our enemies are no different than Balak and Balaam. Some reject God because of the cruelty of the enemy while others pontificate like the priests of Ba'al, claiming a special relation with God. All of them should recall the words of the prophet, "For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord." [Jer.6:13-15]
Those who claim to be the sons of Yishma'el deal with the seed of Yisrael falsely. They should recall the words of this week's Torah reading, "And Balaam said to Balak, "Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 'If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say'? So now, I am going to my people; let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come." [Num. 24:12-14] And further, "a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites. Edom will become a possession, Seir a possession of its enemies, while Israel does valiantly. One out of Jacob shall rule, and destroy the survivors of Ir." [ibid 24:17-19] Let them recall the words of Deborah the prophetess, "Ken Yovdu kol oyvekha, Adona'y; ve'ohavav ketzet hashemesh bithilato -- So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may those who love you be like the sun as it rises in its might." [Judges 6:31]
Balaam saw the camp of the Israelites and proclaimed, "Ma tovu ohalekha ya'akov... How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel! Like winding brooks, like gardens by the rivers side, as aloes which the Lord has planted, and like cedar trees beside the waters." The habitations of Jacob proclaimed the universality of their God and of His teaching. They celebrated the Shabbat, but they extended it to all who lived with them; they practiced lovingkindness to Israelite and gentile alike. This must not change if we wish to remain under His protecting care. Yet, if we do, let our enemies beware, for God shall protect His people and bless them with peace. Adona'y oz le'amo yiten, Adona'y yevarekh et amo vashalom.
This weeks Torah portion, Balak, includes chapters 22 to 25 of the book of Bamidbar, Numbers. The text continues to tell the story of the Children of Israel in the final stages of its journey to the Promised Land. Moshe is within sight of the destination God has led him to, and he is trying to avoid unnecessary battles with kin-tribes. This week's portion tells us of Israel's approach to the land of Moab, which is where Jordan is these days. Now, according to Scriptures, Moabites are descendants of Lot, nephew of Abraham.
Moab was ruled by a king named Balak, who had heard about the coming Israelites, and thought that these people were a real threat to his kingdom. Balaam was a "prophet for hire" who served anyone who paid his price, and would invoke blessings upon them or curses upon their enemies. He had a reputation of being quite successful, maybe because of the fact that he recognized the one and only Almighty God and had some kind of a relationship with Him. Balak called for Balaam to come and curse the Israelites so that they would be defeated.
Balaam spoke of Israel, "How shall I curse, he whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I defy, he whom the Lord has not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him; lo, the people shall live alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." [Num. 23:8] Needless to say, Balak is not satisfied, and he asks Balaam to go elsewhere and try again. Balaam makes another statement, "God is not a man, that he should lie; nor the son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and shall he not do it? or has he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received a command to bless; and he has blessed; and I cannot reverse it. He has not seen iniquity in Jacob, nor has he seen perverseness in Israel; the Lord his God is with him, and the trumpet blast of a king is among them. God brought them out of Egypt; he has as it were the strength of a wild ox. Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, nor is there any divination against Israel; according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel what God has done. Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion; he shall not lie down until he eats of the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain." [Nom. 23:19-24]
The People Israel, supported by God, could have devoured their enemies and all who stood in their way. But they preferred to avoid war and live in peace with all who would live in peace with them. It was so in antiquity, and it is so today. And yet, we have been challenged again and again, throughout our history, by those who say -- 'if God protects you, my scheme to annihilate you will not work. So I will attack and savagely mutilate you to prove that God does not protect you! Your Scriptures say, "you shall be my own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." [Exodus 19:5,6] Furthermore, your prophet declares, "I will also give you as a light to the nations, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth." [Isaiah 49:6] -- well, let's see if your God will protect you from us...' And the slaughter begins!
We Jews have accepted a challenge, through the centuries of humiliation and homelessness, to conduct our time-travel in the ways of peace and grace, even in the face of continued persecution and provocation to violence and vengeance. For two millennia we have accepted our fate -- and we swallowed our pride. Yet, even the teachings of Judaism, liberal and accepting of other paths to God, other manners of worship, insist on the need for survival. The Talmud tells us "The Torah has said, if one comes to kill you, be swift to kill him first." [Brakhot 58:1] How much can we take? After Hitler there is no more room for martyrdom.
But these days our detractors and our stalkers are becoming more brazen and more daring. They declare war upon us and deny us the spoils of our victory when we come up the winners in battle. False prophets at home tell us that we need to return to our meek and despised image to make peace -- but our enemies laugh behind our backs. False prophets at home tell us that there is no more anti-Semitism, and explain away the bellicose calls to holy war and total subjugation that our enemies declare at every public gathering in their realm. Every step of our surrender of land is called a victory by the other side, and every transgression of agreement by them is called a misunderstood act of a people too long oppressed. Where will it end? Will Balak win his goal to curse and banish the seed of Abraham?
Last week saw a meeting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, in which the three criticized Israel's new plan regarding Jerusalem, it was reported. "The leaders assert their absolute rejection of Judaizing Jerusalem," said the communique that they issued at the end of their conference. Can you believe it? The president of Egypt, whose country has enjoyed the fruits of peace with Israel for more that fifteen years now, who got back all of Sinai, who receives from the U.S. a yearly peace offering in the amount of over a billion dollars, and who has done nothing to advance the cause of peace and much to denigrate Israel; Jordan's king Hussein, who owes his continued existence to Israeli friendship during the years of his vilification by the entire Arabs world and the hungry wolf avarice of his Arab neighbors who would have devoured him and his country long ago had it not been for Israeli protection; and Arafat, the self proclaimed chief of a gang of thief and cut-throats called the Palestinian Authority, the jackal, the hyena that attacks and devours the remains of other hunters' prey, who enters every village and town given to him by grace and a desire for peace by Israel -- and proclaiming it as a 'liberated' land from the yet to be vanquished enemy, the 'Jewish entity.' These three speak of "Judaizing Jerusalem?"
What is Jerusalem if not Jewish? Who, ever, has committed himself to any city as did we to our capital? "Im eshkekhekh yerushala'yim tishakakh yemini tidbak leshoni lekhiki im lo ezkerekhi im lo a'ale et yerushala'yim al rosh simkhati --If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." [Psalms 137:5,6] There was never a time when we Jews have not loved and yearned for Jerusalem; the only time we were not among its inhabitants were those dark days when we were slaughtered to extinction in our homeland, and had not yet had sufficient time to raise a new generation to reclaim it. Certainly within recent history -- well over a hundred years (!) -- we have been a majority there. Who but the Jews made Jerusalem the crown jewel of their existence? Judaizing Jerusalem, indeed!
And meanwhile, two Israel Defense Forces soldiers -- Lt. Amit Asulin from Moshav Bnai-Zion and Sgt. Or Cohen from Jerusalem -- were killed and four other soldiers were injured last Wednesday night in the security zone in southern Lebanon, and the body of Israeli naval commando, Itamar Ilya, who was killed in a failed commando operation last September, was brought back to an Israel Air Force base in the country's center. The return of Ilya is part of a deal worked out between Israel, the Hizbullah and the Lebanese government after months of tough negotiations with the mediation of both the French government and the Red Cross's International Committee. Ilya received a full military funeral service today, during which six naval commando soldiers carried his casket, which was draped in an Israeli flag. So the sacrifice continues, evil rears its ugly head, and men test God again and again. Balaam can't curse, but the enemy never stops trying!
Our enemies should heed the words of Balaam, "And Balaam said to Balak, "Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, 'If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say'? So now, I am going to my people; let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come." [Num. 24:12-14] We must be faithful to God and firm in our resolve that what He wills is sure to come true. We must remain strong and united as a people, in Israel and all over the world. Let us beware of our enemies, let us cooperate with our friends, and the rest we shall put in His hands to bring to fruition.
The text of the Torah reading this morning, from the book of Bamidbar, Numbers, chapter 22, begins with the second verse. Balak, King of Moab, invites Balaam, a "prophet for hire," who is reputed to have the power to bless and curse, to help him by casting evil on the Israelites. Balaks messengers deliver his proposal to Balaam, who tells them he must consult with The Lord. The text says, "And God said to Balaam, You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak, Go to your land; for the Lord refuses to give me leave to go with you." [Num. 22:12, 13] Balak sends a second delegation, and Balaam consults God again. God tells Balaam that he may go, "but only that word which I shall say to you, that shall you do." [Num. 22:20] An angel appears on Balaam's path but he does not see it. His donkey does, though, and refuses to move. Balaam beats it to force it to go on. After being beaten three times, the beast speaks, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? And Balaam said to the ass, because you have mocked me; I wished there was a sword in my hand, for now would I kill you. And the ass said to Balaam, Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you? And he said, No. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed down his head, and fell on his face." [Num. 22:28-31] Gods angel rebukes Balaam for beating the ass. Balaam offers to turn back. The angel tells him "Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak." [Num. 22:35]. So Balaam went on with Balak's men.
Balaam, who desires to subdue Israel with words, cannot even subdue his ass with a stick. Balaam, who is famous for his prophetic sight, cannot see what his donkey sees three times. Balaam, who claims prophetic speech - since the Lord puts words into his mouth - is now matched by his ass. Balaam, who boasts that "his knowledge is from the Most High," has to admit, "I did not know." Balaam, who is the wisest of the wise, is bested in a verbal exchange with the most stupid of beasts. Beyond this, the fact is that Balaam is depicted on a level lower than his ass: more unseeing in his inability to detect the angel, more stupid in being defeated verbally by his ass, and more beastly in trying to subdue it with his stick - whereas it responds with tempered speech. Physical violence from man, moderate speech from the beast! What an upside-down world! We have a tradition in Judaism of completing and complementing the Torah text with a passage from the Prophets that relates to the original text and "clinches" the lesson. This morning's reading is from the prophet Micah, "O my people, what have I done to you? And in what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that you may know the righteousness of the Lord. With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with one year old calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love loving mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" [Micah 6:3-8]
The Lord speaks to His people, and indeed to all people, and reminds them of the many blessings which He had bestowed upon them. God on High, the Creator and Father of all, is not difficult to reach, nor is He hard to please. For certain, He does not want to be treated as a flesh and blood potentate. You must not try, for you cannot bribe Him. The prophet asks us mockingly what will please The Creator: maybe pomp, "bow myself before God on high?" or the gift of a good roast, "burnt-offerings, With calves of a year old?" or even going to excess, "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, With ten thousands of rivers of oil?" No, indeed. The prophet tells us that there is a formula, and it is a very straightforward and seemingly simple -- though, of course, it is not quite as simple as we may think -- it requires thought and action: "It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." We must never forget that there are, my friends, inalienable human rights against outrage and injustice. The prophet says, "Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" It is a rhetorical question, and the answer the prophet wishes to hear is "No, never!" It is a heinous sin for any individual by his action to injure the life, honor and possessions of his fellow man stranger or homegrown. To do justly one must not only avoid outrage and injustice, one must become proactive. One must seek to redress injustice, and stop outrage. Neither God's grace, nor even the shadow of the cross, "my firstborn for my transgression," will save us from the scourge of piracy, terror and lawlessness. Palestinians' claim on the land that is these days inhabited by Israelis, even if it is supported by proof of purchase, is voided by years of violence and terror. Only when we stand up for the rights of others will others stand up for our rights, and together we shall all be safe. Only when Palestinians recoil from the action of suicide bombers will they receive a hearing in the hearts and minds of God-fearing humanity. Look at the formula the prophet teaches:
To do justly means that we behave in a fair and equitable manner under any and all circumstances. We do not sway from the straight path for the rich or for the poor, for the blameless or for the guilty. We must maintain impartiality in thought and act when dealing with our fellow creations of God even as we want Gad to deal with us. We must act with compassion and pity or we can never come before Him and ask for His compassion and pity upon us. To love mercy means kindness to the lowly, needy and miserable, as shown in all acts of loving-kindness and selflessness, especially such as go with random acts of personal commitment and service. Hermann Cohen has said, In regard to justice, it is sufficient to carry out its behests; but in regard to mercy, the deed alone is insufficient, even when it is the outcome of a clear sense of duty. Love is an essential accompaniment of every deed of mercy. The sages of Israel have enlarged and elucidated, saying that we exemplify loving mercy by the bestowal of loving kindnesses - gmilut khasadim - such as clothing the naked, nursing the sick, comforting those that mourn, and burying the dead. In fact, there is a story about the great sage, Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai, who declared to his student Joshua after the destruction of the Temple: We have another means of expiation [of sins normally atoned with a sacrifice on the altar], which is equally efficacious, left us; namely, the bestowal of disinterested deeds of loving kindness upon our fellow-men. The Rabbis imbued the generations in Israel with a veritable passion for kindness and pity, and they denied that any one who was devoid of pity could be a true descendant of Abraham. The last part of the formula is "to walk humbly with thy God." This is done, according to the sages, in fellowship and communion with God - not ostentatiously, but with deep inward devotion and noiseless acts of brotherly, selfless love. Rabbi Pinkhas ben Yair said: Holiness leads to humility. Humility leads to the fear of sin; fear of sin leads to saintliness; saintliness leads to the Holy Spirit. The insistence on humility distinguishes Jewish from Greek-Hellenist ethics. Sophism introduced a hero wearing a garland and recognized for his achievements. Judaism teaches that the heroic in man is insignificant and perishable, and all his wisdom and virtue are incapable of standing the crucial test, unless they are the fruits of humility. In the Book of Ecclesiastes we read, "Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Surely, the act of the hero is the most temporary. Humility, however, teaches us to do what needs to be done for its own sake, and not for the praise it might bring us. Thus, the pillars of our faith are accordingly the words of our Prophet Micah this Shabbat: Justice, Mercy and Humility. The Prophet has taught us an eternal truth. We need to feel this truth and its power as we read and review the message. Men - heroes and villains, may come and go - but Micahs ideal will ring true forever. It is the only way for us to relate to our Maker. It is the only way for us to gain immortality and grace with Him. For the words are Micah's -- but the eternal truth is God's revelation. Justice, Mercy and Humility lead to an acceptance of God's sovereignty through brotherhood, love, and peace.
This week's Torah portion once again is a double portion, parashat Khukat-Balak, which includes chapters 19 to 25 of the book of Bamidbar, Numbers. It is interesting to note that in Israel they read Khukat last week, and they read Balak this week - and next week we will be united in reading the same portion. ANYHOW, The portion begins with the account of the red heifer, the holocaust sacrifice (meaning a sacrificed that is totally consumed by the fire on the altar) first offered in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple of Solomon, in Jerusalem - the ashes of which were used to purify the high priest who made atonement for Israel.
The second part of the portion deals with the king of Moab, which is where Jordan is these days, Balak, who had heard about the coming Israelites, and knew that these people were a real threat to his kingdom. He called for Balaam, a "prophet for hire" who would go with anyone who paid his price, to come and curse the Israelites because he knew of the mighty victories that they had scored, "This nation is too powerful for us alone, so if you would, come and curse this nation for us. Then, we may be able to defeat them and drive them from the area. I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed." What Balak failed to realize was that the Lord God, Master of the Universe, had already promised to, "Bless those who bless thee, and curse him who curses thee" -- to Abraham and his seed!
Balaam should have stayed home, for God had told him that He personally blessed and protected the Israelites. However, Balak insisted, and Balaam was tempted by the offer of reward and fame - and he proceeded. However, again and again he failed to curse the seed of Abraham. He asked Balak to take him to a place where he can overlook the Israelite camp, and there he proclaimed, "Ma tovu ohalekha ya'akov, mishkenotekha yisra'el" - Most often we read these words as the "tents and tabernacles" being the habitations of the people. So the Hebrew translates to "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel! Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side, as aloes which the Lord has planted, and like cedar trees beside the waters." But the Hebrew "ohalekha" also can be a reference to "ohel Moed" -- the Tabernacle, the place that Moshe built at the command of the Lord in the desert for the Israelites to worship in, and "mishkan" is related to "shekhina" -- God's presence. Thus, Balaam's words can be read to mean "How goodly are your shrines, O Jacob, and the presence of your God, O Israel!" That gives us a clue to what was unique and different about the Israelites. They had Torah, they had a monotheistic faith, they restricted their ritual to one place -- first the Tabernacle, later the Temple in Jerusalem. And they proclaimed the universality of their God and of His teaching. They celebrated the Shabbat, but they extended the blessing of the Shabbat to all who lived with them; they performed acts of loving kindness to Israelite and gentile alike.
And so it continues to be to this day. If Israel wants to be "k'khole hago'yim" -- as all the nations, than they shall lose their "chosen-ness" and their unique character. If we choose to remain the people who were blessed by Balaam in spite of himself, we must maintain our connectedness with our history and our heritage. It is a balancing act that is not easy -- but it is what makes us unique. We must realize that we dare not, ever, relinquish our distinguishing dedication to the principles of our Torah. We value Torah above all else in the world, because Torah is the Revealed teaching of the God of creation. Torah teaches us the sanctity of life and the equanimity of our God. He has chosen us to be His messengers of his Fatherhood - and the brotherhood of human-kind.
This message is not as simple as one might think at first glance. It is not a license to raise oneself above others, as "God's favorite." Quite the contrary - it is a challenge and an obligation to be worthy of His love and His protection by extending our love and our protection over His creation. The Torah reading for this Shabbat is augmented and made more meaningful by the Haftarah - the words of the prophet Micah, where we learn, "O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal; that you may know the righteousness of the Lord. With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with one year old calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? It has been told you, O man, what is good; and what the Lord does require of you - only to do "Mishpat" - justice, and to love "Khessed" loving mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." [Micah 6:5-8]
So it is that the lesson of this week must be understood and made a part of our foundation of faith. Do good, rather than preaching good. Engage in society rather than philosophize about it. Make a commitment of your time rather than (or in addition to) the fruit of your labor. Gift giving is good - and the eternal lamp must be filled with oil to burn - but the lamp will burn for nothing in the sanctuary that is empty, and all the adornments of the Torah will not amount to anything if the people are so burdened with their troubles and travail as to be unable to come and celebrate in love and peace their own connectivity to God. Therefore, "Mishpat" is the justice of God, His sentence - not the word of a judge of flesh and blood. "Hessed" is a a Hebrew word that has to direct translation, by refers to activities that are done for "social justice" - such as: feeding the hungry, educating the young, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and burying the dead.
Above and beyond all else, one needs to know how to interact with others in such a way as to be an influence for good and not a show-off. "Walking humbly with God" is an act of supreme balance and beauty akin to the wire-walker in the circus. Except that it is ten times more difficult, and a hundred times more rewarding to the one who knows how to perform the deed. The most wonderful thing is that it is within each and everyone's ability to achieve. And when we learn to do it - and when we do it all together, we will transform the world!
May that day arrive soon in our times.
The text of the
Torah reading this Shabbat is from the book of Bamidbar (which, as you know,
is Numbers), chapter 22, beginning with the second verse. Balak, King of Moab,
invites Balaam, a "prophet for hire," who is reputed to have the power
to successfully bless and/or curse, to help him by casting evil upon the Children
of Israel, who are about to arrive at his border. Balak's messengers deliver
his proposal to Balaam, who tells them he must consult with The Lord. The text
says, "And God said to Balaam, You shall not go with them; you shall not
curse the people; for they are blessed. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and
said to the princes of Balak, Go to your land; for the Lord refuses to give
me leave to go with you." [Num. 22:12, 13] Balaam turns down the invitation.
Balak sends a second delegation, and Balaam again consults God. This time Balaam
is told that he may go, "but only that word which I shall say to you, that
shall you do." [Ibid. 22:20]
An angel blocks Balaam's path – but he does not see it. His donkey does, though, and refuses to move. Balaam beats it to force it to go on. After being beaten three times, the beast speaks, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times? And Balaam said to the ass, because you have mocked me; I wished there was a sword in my hand, for now would I kill you. And the ass said to Balaam, Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden ever since I was yours to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you? And he said, No. Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed down his head, and fell on his face." [Ibid. 22:28-31] God's angel rebukes him for beating the ass. Balaam offers to turn back, but the angel says, "Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak." [Ibid. 22:35].
How incredible it is to read this tale, and how hard it is to conceive of a donkey that not only sees angels of God, but is capable of speech. It took some thirty five hundred years before the world would be treated to another speaking beast of burden, the famous, Mr. Ed... But, seriously, the Torah is trying to make the point that Balaam, who had established a career on his dubious “prophetic powers,” was, in fact, bested by a donkey - maybe because he behaved like one in going to meet Balak and do his bidding, which was not to the wishes of God.
I would like to make a parallel between this story, and one that saw light in the New York Times just a couple of day ago.
A reporter, Charles DeLaFuente, reported on a Rabbi who is offering an online conversion course to anyone who wants to become Jewish. He tells us that, “A PC and a Web connection bring the rabbi and converts from as far away as Australia and New Zealand together for online study and even the final exam. ” Mr. DeLaFuente quotes the Rabbi, Celso Cukierkorn, who is 34, “Until the mid 90's, I wasn't computer-literate, but then I realized that there are different ways to touch people - and that the computer was one of them.” DeLaFuente reports that Rabbi Cukierkorn ancestors, who were rabbis, “traveled from village to village to bring the message of God, right now it's the same thing, except I don't go to a specific place. I can do that from the computer.”
Well, like Balaam in his days, this Rabbi has discovered that God speaks to people in many ways, and that one needs only listen with a keen ear and an obedient heart to receive God’s message, and transmit the same to others.
Lest you think that the Rabbi in the report is either ultra-reform or a khassid, the article tells us that Rabbi Cukierkorn was trained as an Orthodox rabbi and graduated from the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Monsey, N.Y. It is interesting to note that he had not encountered criticism from any quarter suggesting that people who seek conversion online are not serious enough about their desire to become Jewish.
In fact, DeLaFuente reports, “Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism, said that the Conservative movement requires at least a year of study by prospective converts, including learning Hebrew, and requires "a good deal of human contact," although the process does not have to be completely face-to-face.
Rabbi Schorsch further said it sounded to him like the Web site program met the second test and was "on the right track" for the first.
Rabbi Cukierkorn said his process for conversion online was identical to the one he uses in his synagogue. "The only difference is that I might do the conversion interview over the phone."
Asked where the majority of his converts came from, the rabbi paused, then said: "I have people everywhere. They come from wherever God touches their souls."
And that is the lesson of the Torah reading this week, and essentially every week: We need to open our heart to receive the loving touch of God. When God touches our soul our lives become meaningful and blessed.
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