By Rabbi Richard G Lampert
Rabbi Emeritus, North Shore Temple Emanuel
Chatswood, Sydney, Australia
“Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov, mish’k’notekha, Yisrael”
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel”
These words are surely familiar to all who attend shul services. Every morning service throughout the year commences with these words, spoken by Balaam (or, as the Hebrew has it,
) a heathen prophet who had been called by an enemy of Israel to curse the Jewish people, and yet he uttered these words of praise.
My erstwhile professor and teacher, Rabbi Professor Louis Rabinowitz z”l taught his class about Balaam and another heathen philosopher at the time of our sages, Oenomaus of Gadara. Our rabbis in the
linked the two pagans, saying, “There never arose philosophers among the gentile nations comparable to Balaam and Oenomaus of Gadara”. Each was convinced that they were to curse Israel, and each, with a knowledge of the qualities which made for Jewish survival, was able to praise, not curse, the Jewish people.
The inspiring words of Balaam are too well-known to need any further comment, except to say that the statement proclaims twin pillars upon which the world of Judaism stands, like
, the two pillars that stood at the entrance to the Temple of old. The twin pillars of Balaam, so important to Judaism, are “tent” and “dwelling place” – synagogue and home.
However, the world of Judaism depends not only on two, but on three pillars. It was the heathen philosopher, Oenomaus of Gadara, who highlighted the third pillar. Who was he? He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition. He is also cited in rabbinical literature as an intimate friend of the great
, Rabbi Meir, who himself was also a pupil of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, referred to by his erstwhile colleagues as
(the ‘Other one’), because he turned his back on Judaism. (See
As a Driven Leaf
by the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg).
As a result of his close connection with these rabbis, Oenomaus must have gotten to know the character of the Jews quite well, and it was therefore natural that, when the Romans wanted to know the secret of the survival of the Jewish people, they should turn to him for advice. “How can we attack and overcome this people?” they asked him.
We need to understand the contemporary times when these questions were asked, we need to understand the history of the previous seventy years. In the year 70 CE the Temple had been destroyed, and still the Jewish people survived – survived to such an extent that they were able to mount a very effective revolt, headed by Simon Bar Kochba, against the might of Rome. That disastrous war was followed by the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine, their ancestral homeland.
And so the “tent” was gone and the “dwelling place” was gone, both Temple and national home – and still the Jews survived. And so the Romans asked, “How can we attack and overcome them?” Oenomaus, the sage, answered, “Go through their synagogues and school-rooms. If you hear the school-children chirping with their youthful voices, you cannot destroy them (the Jews) for thus did their ancestor promise when he said, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau!’ When the voice of Jacob is heard in the synagogue, the hands of Esau are powerless. If you can stop these voices, then the hands of Esau will prevail – and then they will be at your mercy!”
Our ancient rabbis realized that he had hit upon the truth, and they accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher that the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had revealed the secret of Jewish survival.
“Home and synagogue” said Balaam. “The education of the young” said Oenomaus. The two of them together, albeit centuries apart, penetrated deeply into the very foundation of our faith, for the Jewish home and the synagogue are only possible when the education of the child has been such that he/she can establish a Jewish home and participate in the worship within the synagogue.
Today, more than ever, we as Jews need the defence apparatus able to withstand the powerful “hands of Esau” being raised against us.
Alas! I do not believe that we have adequately provided our young people with the necessary armament to withstand the attacks. I write as an Australian rabbi about the Australian context, and I can honestly say, after 26 years of service as a rabbi and 34 years of living in the country, that I do not believe that we have given our young people enough meaningful Jewish knowledge to go forth into the world and fight the good Jewish fight.
We have been lucky to bring a number of young people to
stage, but we have failed miserably to provide them with significant Post-
education and therefore mature knowledge. All we have been able to do is to prepare a group of “Jewveniles”. A number of us have tried to offer Post
education – only to a handful of young people, a small number of whom have taken up the challenge and have moved on into Jewish leadership roles. But far too few!
The Progressive movement has been aware of this dilemma for many years and has provided a number of opportunities for further study – Confirmation etc. There is no question in my mind that one of the great challenges facing us today is to play down the importance of the
ceremony, because at the age of 13, a child remains just that – a child. It is only when they reach ages of say, 16 or 17, that they are mature enough to understand and deal with the lofty concepts of our faith. If I had my “druthers”, I would only hold a
ceremony (and party) at 16 or 17! – But then I am retired and seem to have missed my chance!
Good luck to those colleagues who share my point of view!