Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, June 30, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
One of the news stories in the Jewish world this week was about five American Jews who walked off their Birthright Israel program in protest of the program’s lack of discussion regarding the occupation of the West Bank and joining a tour of Hebron led by the anti occupation group Breaking the Silence composed of Israeli army veterans.
When I saw the story, my initial reaction was to be impressed with the young women’s integrity. Birthright has no political agenda but elides the whole occupation issue. But as I thought about it, I said to myself, “Wait a minute - these women were offered a free trip to Israel by a group whose goal is simply to introduce young American Jews, lacking basic knowledge about Judaism, Jewish history and the state of Israel, to their Jewish heritage and to see Israel as the amazing nation it is. The Israeli Palestinian issue is not on their agenda and that is perfectly OK.” Instead the actions of these women proved to be ungrateful and self-inflating. It also turned out that, in fact, they did have an agenda. They were all activists in If Not Now, a group of young Jews who are opposed to Israel’s occupation policies. They came with the intention of making a political point. What initially seemed like an act of integrity now appeared to be a stunt, even if they have every right, and perhaps should be respected for not accepting the status quo on the occupation.
Truth is, Birthright isn’t so clean either. While it is a wonderful program, connecting unaffiliated young Jews with their heritage in very positive ways, over the years Birthright has changed. Originally it was founded by billionaires Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman who are both very committed to Jewish pluralism. However recently the single largest donor to the program has been Sheldon Adelson, the rapacious, litigious, right wing casino billionaire. Although Birthright insists that Adelson’s political views do not influence the program, in recent years liberal groups like the Reform Movement have been removed as trip providers, though over a third of the participants identify as Reform, while 3 of the ten trip providers are Orthodox groups. Also, Birthright promotes after-trips from groups that are right wing Orthodox and racist identified with Meir Kahane supporters. So they are not so clean either.
The end of this story, to me, is the recognition that good and evil, right and wrong, in this world are very much mingled. People who act with integrity can also be compromised; people who promote authoritarianism and prejudice can be generous in supporting projects that do much good.
Our sages had this in mind when they suggested that one should say a blessing for the bad that occurs to one even as one says a blessing for the good. One says a blessing taking into account one’s present circumstances even though things may turn in the future.
This brings us to our morning Torah portion. In parashat Balak, Bilaam, the prophet for profit, is encouraged by the offer of a healthy reward to take up the challenge offered by Balak King of Moab to curse this people Israel that threatens his territory. Bilaam consults with God and is informed not to go but God relents, seemingly because it presents God with an opportunity to promote Israel. Bilaam tries again and again to curse Israel, but being a prophet who can only speak what God intends, keeps blessing the people of Israel to King Balak’s growing hysteria.
Israel is praised as “There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations…God freed them from Egypt (and) Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.”
Israel is unique among the nations, an independent nation following a special Divinely ordained path.
“Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, No divining in Israel… Lo, a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts, Rests not till it has feasted on prey…”
There is no magic or superstition among Israelites, they have faith in their God. But they are also a powerful people, like lions, courageous, brave and more powerful than their neighbors.
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!... God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.”
Our tradition tells us that the meaning of this comment is that the people though dwelling in open air tents, were respectful of each other and made sure that despite the dense living arrangements they gave each family appropriate privacy.
So despite this wicked profiteering prophet’s intentions, good came out from his terrible self promoting policies.
But what about this people, who were just lauded as a ‘people that dwells apart’, ‘not reckoned among the nations’, a people that ‘rises like a lion’, whose ‘dwellings are so fair’? Did we not just read in weeks past of their ingratitude, their rebelliousness, their lack of faith? Didn’t we just hear how God was ready to kill them all off of them in the desert and start afresh with Moses?
Here too we recognize that not just with individuals, but peoples as well, goodness comingles with wickedness. For Israel is both rebellious and faithful, it is kindhearted and callous, the laws it lives by can be noble but also lacking in spiritual audacity.
To make sense of this dichotomy is to take in the context that despite being a generation past enslavement to Egypt, slavery carries scars within the descendants.
In an interesting comment that ties the book of Exodus to Numbers, the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Ger, teaches: “(When Bilaam describes to God what he has been asked to do by Balak, he refers to Israel as) HaAm hayotsay miMitzrayim, the nation coming out of Egypt for (a midrash tells us) that Bilaam was one of Pharaoh’s advisors who told him to enslave the nation of Israel, and now too, through his magic and sorcery, he wished to return them to Egypt. Therefore the text states ‘hayotzay’ in present tense for their Exodus was not yet complete.”
They were still dealing with the trauma of slavery, and Bilaam thought he could exploit this weakness.
The Sfat Emet continues, “Therefore in each of the blessings Bilaam mentions “God who took them out of Egypt”, but he saw that he could not weaken the freedom God had granted us when we left Egypt. The Sages wanted to establish the section of Bilaam as part of the recitation of the Shema (Brachot 12b). Just as there is a mitzvah to remember and mention the Exodus every day so too, one is bidden to remember and mention the kindness that God did for us in thwarting the plot of Bilaam the wicked. (Balak, 81b, year 5654-55)” To prove that later in Biblical history there was an interest in codifying this moment on a daily basis, the Sfat Emet shares this verse from Micah (6:5) which is also part of the Haftarah linked to this Torah portion: “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, And what Balaam son of Beor answered to him.”
Remember because it is comforting to know that God has our back. And remember also because what Balak and Bilaam thought would turn out to Israel’s detriment, ended up being to its advantage. As our Sages recognized, sometimes what appears to be malicious and unwarranted turns out to be positive and necessary. The opposite can be true as well – what seems well intentioned and thoughtful can blow up into a disaster.
In that case what can we ever really know? Is every action ultimately arbitrary in terms of its results? It is worth reading the conclusion of this passage by Micah. There too Israel is unsure of how to act best in relationship to God. Conventional wisdom suggests that offering sacrifices is the way to win God’s favor, the more the better, the more sincere in offering the better. But Micah indicates that while offerings are indicated by ritual practice, what God truly desires is: “Only to do justice, to love compassion and kindness, to act modestly and humbly.”
We cannot know the ramifications of every action, but we do know this -- that if our actions and intentions are directed towards kindness, justice, love and done with humility, than we truly are acting in ways that God demands of us and ultimately this will make the world better for it.