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Balak – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

Of the five Sedrot in the Torah which are named after a person two, Yitro and Balak, refer to non Jews, Yitro (Jethro) the father in law of Moses came to help and advise. Balak was an enemy whose intention was to cause destruction. He entices Balaam to curse the people.

Rabbi Hertz notes that in the Munich Manuscript, the only complete extant manuscript of the Talmud, the book is actually recorded as “Sefer Bilaam”- the Book of Bilaam. Balaam, whose father was also a seer, may well have been an historical character. He is mentioned in an inscription found at Deir Alla in Jordan in 1967

There is a curious parallel if we compare the story of the talking donkey, and the only other talking animal in the Torah, the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The donkey in our Sedra is the hero; involved in averting the curses. She reminds Balaam that he can only speak as God instructs. The serpent brought about destruction by enticing Eve without reference to God.

The story is well known. Three times Balaam ends up blessing Israel rather than uttering a curse. Balaam then prophesies the triumph which will follow.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations

Balak walks the world today. Xenophobia, the fear and loathing of strangers, has been recognised for a long time. Execration texts, written formulae to curse “the other” were part of the ancient world. When printing appeared they carried on in books and pamphlets.

In the modern world they have changed shape. Conventions have been turned on their head and we are exposed to vilification and slurs via the internet, social media and in our daily lives. This appears in counter culture, political argument and historical reviews. It appears on the streets with physical and verbal abuse.

What has not changed is antisemitism. It is always there, sometimes covert and increasingly overt. There is no intermediary such as Balaam to act as a conscience. The existence of the Jews and of Israel has become an obsession with whole swathes of the world.

How should we react? It is hard to be a “nation that dwells alone” but over the centuries we became a nation that learnt to dwell "within” the world about us. It has not been easy, but unlike many other civilisations, we survived despite the pressures upon us.

We need to remember that our tents are still “goodly”.

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