by Rabbi Rich Kirschen,
Anita Saltz Education Center
, World Union for Progressive Judaism
Today was one of those hot, dusty and very uncomfortable days in Jerusalem, and the news from inside the city as well as from around the world only increased the feeling that “the heat is on” in this complex capital of the Jewish State. Although I don’t often identify with Moabites, I unfortunately understood a little bit more about how Balak the Moabite king may have felt in his dusty desert Kingdom. Lately there is a feeling that we – like the poor Moabites – are being closed in on all sides and are having more of our share of challenges than we know how to handle. And even more ironic, Balak the King of Moab, that tragic figure in this week’s Torah portion, unfortunately seems to serve as a role model for both Israel’s leaders and Israel’s enemies.
In this Torah portion, Balak is facing an overwhelming onslaught when he sees the Israelites coming towards him and his kingdom. However, instead of being able to find opportunity in crisis, articulate a vision and show true leadership, Balak simply looks for an easy way out by forcing the hand of prophecy. And he finds his prophet in the character of Balaam, a local prophet in the neighborhood (who in my opinion is given a bad rap, but that is beside the point). Balak is at his wits end and is looking for a quick fix. But he completely misses the nature of Balaam’s gift for prophecy and mistakenly assumes, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). The problem is that Balaam cannot make promises about his prophetic capabilities even “for all the gold in Balak’s household” (Numbers 22:19). This is because it is God who will ultimately define the prophecy, not Balaam who is simply the vehicle. Here the lesson of this week’s Torah portion is clear: relying on what you think God will say is simply no substitute for good leadership!
Balak knows the power of speech especially coming from people in high places, or, in the case of the Torah, from people standing on top of high places. And he knows that there is a direct link between the power of speech and the ability of the people to rise to a challenge or fall into despair. Speeches and the words of our leaders have a huge impact. David Ben Gurion’s ability to broadcast a message of incredible will and defiance in 1948 was an invaluable asset to the fledgling Jewish State during Israel’s first years; conversely, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol caused a panic right before the Six Day war when he stuttered on the radio during his address to the nation. What most of us need, yet few of us are willing to admit, is that we desire our leaders to tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. But Balak miscalculates and instead of addressing Moab, he only thinks about cursing the Israelites.
Like Balak the leadership of Israel seems to only react but with no clear policy and no clear goals. Lately it feels like Ehud Barak has become Ehud Balak. Unlike the heat coming in from the desert, these days one feels nothing when it comes to leadership in Israel. And if the government is giving us neither guidance nor direction, can someone please tell me where the opposition has gone these days? Is there even an opposition? Maybe Tzipi Livni has gone to Moab?
But Balak doesn’t symbolize only Israel’s lack of leadership. When it comes to Israel’s enemies, their unthinking irrational hatred and longing for a curse on Israel is like Balak’s request for a false prophecy from Balaam. It just feels like the world has gone mad when one cannot log on to a Bob Dylan website with an Israeli IP address. So Saudi Arabians, Chinese, people from every dictatorship in the world can log on and listen to Bob Dylan but not evil Israel. Dear Balak*…
When the Gay Pride parade in Spain won’t let Israelis participate… what can we say? This is just incredible…after all, everyone knows that Israel has the best Gay Pride parade in the Middle East…Oh that’s right… we have the
Gay Pride parade in the Middle East! And of course let us not forget the 800 protesters who stopped ZIM Israeli shipping line from docking in Oakland. If Balak is trying to force an evil narrative on a good narrative that is exactly what is happening today. However something here feels different these days. Israel’s detractors don’t seem to have a clear vision of what they want from Israel. They too lack vision – in fact it feels like these protests are not merely about policy but about our existence.
Finally let us not forget the 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews who came to Jerusalem to protest in support of school segregation. “It’s like putting Americans and Africans together. They can’t study together with such huge mental differences,” an ultra-Orthodox Jewish parent said when explaining why he cannot allow his daughters to share a classroom with Sephardic Jewish girls. Well we all know that this Torah portion tells about Balaam and his donkey who saw an angel and began to speak. So it is always nice to know that there is a wonderful symmetry this week both in the Torah and in the Holy City in terms of “talking asses!”
I know it is politically incorrect for me to quote Bob Dylan with my Israeli IP address, so in the words of Robert Zimmerman, the prophet from Minneapolis, “It hurts me too.”
is an Arabic phrase but now used in Israeli slang. Find an Israeli for the definition…