D’var Torah Balak

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My father’s grandfather came to New York in about 1880, the first member of his family to emigrate from Budapest.  My great grandfather lived a long life, and so my father knew him well; it was thus completely natural that when my kid brother was born, my father would want to name the baby after him.

But there was a problem.  Coming as he did from a Germanophile family, my great grandfather’s name was Adolph, and for obvious reasons, no Jewish child is named Adolph.  We Jews don’t give our children the name of an evil person.

And yet, this week’s Torah reading carries the name of Balak – a Torah poster-child for anti-Zionism and evil.

The reading tells us that Balak, hating the Jews but afraid of them, sends the prophet Ba’alam to curse them; G-d, we read, stops Ba’alam on the road, and, much to Balak’s chagrin, forces him to bless, rather than curse the Jews.

And so it is that the timeless blessing that forms a part of our service:  Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha yisra’el – how good are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel – is compelled from the mouth of an enemy; a hater of Israel; an instrument of evil.  Ba’alam’s intended curse becomes a blessing.

This leaves us with a strange paradox:  Moses, who loves Israel, is called upon to rebuke and chastise, while Ba’alam, who is the agent of a hater of Israel, is compelled to bless.

This is a week when we have had good reason to consider curse and blessing: for this week, we buried three of our children, abducted and killed for being Jews. And now, we confront the horrendous fact that on the night they were buried, an Arab teen was beaten and burned to death by Jewish hands in an act of revenge for their murder.

This is also a week when we have reason to consider what the Christian world calls grace – the grace of three families who – we now understand, had known since almost the very beginning of their ordeal that their beloved sons had perhaps been shot in the car that spirited them away, apparently provoked by Naftali Frankel’s furtive and tragically futile telephone call for help.  Their dignity and poise under the most horrifying circumstances summoned a rarely seen level of unity in Israel and among Jews around the world.

We, a people who lived for two thousand years in helplessness, understand that there is evil and good, curse and blessing, and even if we have not personally experienced it, we grasp instinctively that the two are inextricably linked.

There are many of us who worry about the curses – the evil – that can seem to dominate our reality:

  • an Arab world that overwhelmingly views Jews as the second class Dhimmi, and the existence of a Jewish state as a profound affront to its collective honor;
  • a Europe which seems to increasingly give cover and comfort – and with alarming frequency, electoral representation – to primary antisemites;
  • A rate of Jewish assimilation and disaffection in North America that is the source of justifiable concern;
  • Most disturbingly, an increasingly tendentious intra-communal debate, in which those who take a public or even private, communal position on any aspect of Israel’s security policy find themselves attacked – and I use the word absolutely consciously – from the other camp.

Despite all this, the Jewish people have rarely seen a time in history when we have been more blessed.

We are blessed because the miracle that is Israel represents the flowering of Jewish civilization.

Consider:

  • Some 8000 books were published in Hebrew in 2013 – that’s one for every 1000 Israelis.
  • Israel is second only to Silicon Valley in the number of technology startups.
  • Israel received 3.5 million tourists in 2013
  • Ranked 16th of 187 nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, with a GDP of $234B and annual growth of 3.5%.

We are blessed because the core values of Judaism are increasingly integrated into western societies, so that the laws of the public authorities in the diaspora communities where most of us live are largely consonant with the laws that have sustained Jewish life for millennia.

We are blessed because despite assimilation, Jewish life is flowering, in new and unimagined ways.  If you don’t believe me, look at my oldest son’s left arm, which, to Bram’s and my continued dismay, is now tattooed with the full shema and ve’ahavta, wrapped 7 times in a spiral line of text.

But I want to return to the events of these last several weeks, to the Torah reading, and to the challenging question of Jewish unity around the State of Israel.  And to this idea that while Ba’alam, the hater of Israel, blessed us, Moses – who LOVES us — sometimes chastises us.

It seems to me that we need to stop treating criticism of Israel from those who LOVE Israel as if it were a curse.  In return, those who love Israel and rebuke it have an absolute obligation to be very careful not to ally themselves, directly or indirectly, with those who do, in fact, curse us.

At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that Ba’alam offers his blessing not of his free will, but rather under compulsion, and with a heart that may still contain some small animus – despite the beauty of the words he speaks.

We need to remember, then, that people who praise us sometimes have their own agenda in mind, rather than what’s actually best for us. This means that those of us who are in the business of seeking allies for Israel need to be careful to ensure as best we can that those allies are sincere, and not merely uttering the modern version of a compelled blessing – though blessing it may still be.

Love for Israel, which finds its modern expression in the political movement called Zionism – is a core value of Judaism.

We have all been inspired – by the dignity of the families; by the solidarity of our communities; by the dedication of the searchers; and by the united grief of a nation.  And we have also been inspired by the fact that the expression of that grief, and a great deal of rage, has overwhelmingly, if not universally, been channeled within the bounds of the rule of law.

Consider for a moment that this is a society in which virtually every member has lost a loved one to war or violence.  I wonder if we in Canada could do as well under similar circumstances.

We understand, as Ari Shavit said at a shiur at the Hartmann Institute on the night of the funerals, that “to the right, we have to be morally responsible and to the left, being brutal may be required to survive.”

We understand too that no State, and indeed no person, is perfect:  that people and governments do the best that they can under sometimes horrifyingly difficult circumstances, and being less than perfect, sometimes make choices that should be criticized, with love, by those who love.  There is a profound and primary difference between criticism and curse, just as there is between unity of purpose, which we share, and uniformity of opinion, which we do not.

We need to remember, after this terribly difficult week, that our unity – our love for one another as a people and our ability to give and receive loving criticism – is our greatest – and perhaps our only true earthly strength.

Today’s Torah portion contains the familiar words of Mah Tovu, which we recite at the conclusion of the morning service.  But there are some other words in the morning service that seem particularly appropriate in this week when we buried our children:  the final lines of the 30th Psalm:

Hear me, eternal one, and be gracious; Eternal one, be a help for me.  You turned my mourning into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that I might sing your praise and not be silent.

May all those who curse Israel come to sincerely bless us, and may we genuinely merit that blessing; may love and time and faith turn the grief of the bereaved families to dancing; and may they and we find comfort in the support of the worldwide community of Am Yisra’el.

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