Balak — 5770

27/06/2010 at 17:51 1 comment

“The Power of Positive Thinking”

Shabbat Balak

26 June 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

Throughout the length and breadth of the Tanach – the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings – the Israelites are characterized as an am k’shei oref – a stiff-necked people.  They undercut their leaders, they selectively hear God’s instruction, they sin while receiving revelation at Sinai and they grumble seemingly without end as they wander through the desert, taking what would already be an uncomfortable journey and exacerbating it to the extremities of distress.  It seems, as we walk with our ancestors, that their lives are a grand gesture of tragedy – as we see with the Israeliteis and the Midianites at the end of our portion, many times as they encounter the other nations along their way, it is they themselves who are their own worst enemy.  And here, in this instance – this vignette and moment — we have the opposite – we see Balaam four times revealing other alternative, positive truths about the Israelites.

I have often spoken about this tendency for turning ourselves inside out, in our own modern contexts – the careening disparities between Judaism lived outside of Israel and lived within Israel and the fragile perceptions of that we have of each other in each place.  And within Israel itself, a creeping unease exists not only about the purposefulness and the rootedness of a place where the Jews can live without fear of persecution – it is shown that many Israelis under 30 cannot accurately identify the founders of the modern language and state, like Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Haim Nachman Bialik and David ben Gurion and in some calses, even Golda Meir – this is like American youngsters not knowing George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton — and yet, too, there is a rising sense of helplessness among the people when facing the cold reality that within the coalition system of governance, the politicians must be answerable not only to magnificent, enduring ideas of democracy – they too are answerable to the small sliver of people who keep them in office – there is not adequate oversight – thus creating an excessive disparity of influence for those who are the rainmakers for creating a particular moment of power for particular people in a particular place.

And today, there is the expanding chasm between haredim (people who are sometimes known as ultra-orthodox Jews) and everyone else, including other religious Jews – which has lately brought demonstrations, denunciations, dissembling, rioting and violence.  And a big factor in thinking about a mindset – about an Israeli outlook and vantage point in the world is that by necessity, Israeli youth serve in the Israel Defense Force for a minimum of two-three years, followed by several decades of reserve duty.  This in itself is no small matter.

And it seems that every time we convince ourselves to let down our guard just a little bit and take a deeper breath and unclench our coiled up spirit, and we admit the possibility that we might just live in peace or at least, non-threatening normal relationships with our neighbors, there pops up another Helen Thomas who articulates that the Jews have no place and have no home and tells us just to get the hell out and go back to our deadly history.

And I think of all of this as the hired gun Balaam stands over the people Israel and despite himself, blesses the people.  What would impel this unguarded honesty as it rolls off of the tongue of one who was asked to curse, instead, standing by the side of a disapproving king?  In answering this question, our sages are quite clear – here, in the land of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan, the Israelites dwell in modest and exemplary order.  The people stayed together, feeling responsible for one another – and at the same time, they zealously guarded the personal dignity and the rights of each individual family – making sure that each family was allowed diverse expression with a caring community.

Balaam recognizes from his vantage point that there is no way that he can curse the people, because there is no hook, no wedge that would let such negative thoughts in.  Balaam sees an alternate reality.  This moment is so different from the rest of the journey, from who the Israelites had been and will be again, and it seems that when an outsider gazes at the people, the people show up as compassionate and eager to help each other out – and that the moment that the Torah resumes its insider narrative, the people are shown in their naked complexities and with their imperfections showing, far from any triumph.

This is similar to all of us – how we live everyday, unguarded among our family and how we strive to give a different impression when we entertain, or when we have guests in our home.  Do we not prepare ourselves and even clean, differently, when guests are coming over?

As our fragile craft of peoplehood and identity, including what it means to think about the modern state of Israel – as it hits rocky shoals and spring a leak or two, what keeps us all together?  The cynics would say that it is living a collective trauma – that we close ranks when our soldiers are kidnapped, or our communities threatened and when the shadow of the holocaust lurks behind all things – when the existential enemy appears ominous in our sight – Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran, we put our many differences aside and dwell together.

The mystics would say that what keeps us together – is that underneath the gruffness and even the hostility that we display towards each other, there is a heart teeming with compassion and that penetrating past the stone of our outer selves — when looking upon our souls and what makes us function, there exists peace.  Balaam was not looking at the exterior situation of the people – the difficulty and the mess – he was looking deeper within, into the inner character of the people.

So what are we made of?  The question is not, how do we project ourselves in public – rather, what is at our core?  Shall we be governed by the iron grip of fear which compels us to circle our wagons in a tighter and tighter circle and throw stones at others who propose a different way?  Or shall we be governed by generosity, moving past the slings and arrows of outrageous comments, allowing ourselves to address what remains true after all the human weakness.  I believe that past our mistakes and our ability to so frequently sabotage ourselves, what remains true is the tendency of a person to want to matter – in the words of our prophet from today’s Haftarah – ki im asot mishpat, v’a’havat hesed, v’hatzneia lechet im elohecha — by doing good and to reward one small act of loving kindness with another.

To progress forward, we move a few steps back – in this moment of unguarded time, when another sees us for what we cannot see in ourselves – for it is Balaam that is telling the story now – we can capture hope — and it is in this hope that we will find a conviction, resolve, security and an endurance to go on.

Shabbat Shalom.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Hukkat — 5770 Ekev — 5770

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Ginny  |  28/06/2010 at 16:42

    Thought provoking. Thank you.


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