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Parashat Balak 5776: Being a good Jew by being a good person

In memory of Shira Banki, Z”L, murdered last year during the Pride Parade in Jerusalem when she was 16 years old; and in honour of the more than 25 thousand people that marched in Thursday’s Pride Parade to say no to violence and discrimination and yes to love, pluralism and respect for each other

And this time I will start from the end and the end of this Sedra is probably one of the most challenging and hard parts of the Torah. An Israelite man and a Moabite woman are sinning in public and Pinhas the Cohen impales the two of them in front of everyone, taking the Law in his hands, and for this shocking act of violence he is… blessed by God and given a covenant of peace. If Shira Banki’s murderer, who I will not name here, reads this passage and of course he considers that every participant of the Pride Parade is publicly sinning, then he would feel encouraged that he took a knife and decided to “execute” those sinners, succeeding only in taking the life of a 16 years old girl. This passage of the Torah is not only complicated and challenging, but also terribly dangerous. Sadly, I don’t have a suggestion how to read this passage. Generations of commentators, feeling as uncomfortable as we do, have tried to justify the Torah’s reaction to Pinhas’ actions. Some claimed that this was a one-time situation and it is not a precedent for future generations, others say that he was saving many lives by stopping the plague. I am not entirely convinced by any of these answers so I will remain, for now, without one. Let’s talk about Balaam the Wizard, the Seer, the main character of this Parashah. Balaam is a complex character. It would be easy to just see him as a villain, trying to hurt the People of Israel, and failing miserably. The story has funny moments, like the episode of the donkey, or Balaam running with Balak the King from spot to spot trying to find an angle, a point of view that will enable them to curse Israel. I can imagine them running from mountain to mountain to the music of an old comedy movie. The thing is that according to the Torah and to the Midrash, Balaam’s powers were real. He had the ability to prophesize the future and to bless and curse. In the Jewish view, it is not possible to have these powers without God’s approval, so this means that God gave Balaam his powers. And indeed, we see at the beginning Balaam warning the delegation of Balak that he can only go with them if God approves, and when He doesn’t Balaam sends the delegation back home. The second time God gives conditional approval, so Balaam goes. Our Sages were understandably perplexed by Balaam. Was he a friend? He did follow God’s command to bless rather than curse Israel, and his blessings were so beautiful that we repeat one of them each morning. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob”. Israel, Balaam prophesied accurately, would be “a people dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations”. Yet in the very next portion of the Torah, God orders war against the Midianites, as punishment for their successful incitement to sexual immorality and idolatry and Balaam is among those killed in the war. All too many Jews continue to cite stories like this one as evidence that Gentiles cannot be trusted. “Scratch a non-Jew and you find an anti-Semite,” we are told. Better not to count on Gentile friends or allies. Some Jews won’t claim all Gentiles are Anti-Semitic, only all Moslems are. I think this is the very opposite of what the Torah wants from us. Of course Jews have suffered persecution and betrayal in the course of history—but we have also benefited and learned a great deal from traditions and peoples that are not Jewish, never more so than today. Judaism has always sought a balance between inward and outward focus; between the particular and the universal, attention to Jewish needs and attention to human needs. Sometimes Jews have to stand apart from the world. At other moments we need to be, and can be, an integral part of the world. Parashat Balak gives expression to the fact that the balance is often hard to strike. But Torah—our covenant with God and one another—impels Jews to care about and cooperate with others, even as it mandates that we preserve our differences and particular tradition. At the very moment when the covenant with Israel is made at Sinai, God reminds Israel that “all the Earth is Mine.” That covenant with the people of Israel, like the earlier covenant ceremonies with the patriarchs, follows the earlier covenant made after the Flood with the Children of Noah—i.e., all humanity—for which the rainbow is an eternal sign. God speaks not only to Balaam but to Avimelekh, king of the Philistines, and Hagar, the mother of Ishmael and the Arab people. Our sacred text makes it clear that Jews have no monopoly on goodness or on God. Part of the blessing of being a Jew in 2016 is that we can live freely our Judaism and be citizens of the World at the same time. We can come to Shul and raise money for Jewish charities and be concerned by the refugees from Syria and the human rights situation in Turkey. We must care for our own, but we are not fully keeping our mission if we don’t care for others as well. To be a Jew in 2016 is to be able to fully live up to God’s command to be a “light to the nations”, to defend and educate in our values, to use our past not to be sorry for ourselves and the persecutions we suffered, but to use our example and personal story so nobody has to suffer as we did, and nobody will persecute others like they did to us. As 25 thousand people did on Thursday, we must march for freedom for all, for equality for all, for the right to live in peace and security, for the right of children to a childhood and happiness. And all this, while being the best Jews we can be… actually, doing this will make us the best Jews we can be.

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