A Word of Torah - Parashat Balak
My family has a habit of frequenting struggling restaurants, which means we often wind up befriending their owners. And, given my limited menu choices, those owners usually soon discover that we are Jewish. One night, many years ago, my wife was talking to one of these owners about the difficulties she was facing in her own business. To which the struggling restaurateur replied “Oh, you don’t have to worry. You’re Jewish and God doesn’t let Jewish businesses fail.”
This week’s Torah portion and its story of Balaam, the heathen prophet hired by Moabite king Balak to curse Israel, brought that evening at that long since shuttered restaurant to mind. Having twice failed in his mission, we are told that Balaam turns his gaze to the wilderness where he lifts his eyes and sees Israel “encamped tribe by tribe.” (Numbers, 24:2) The vision evokes from Balaam the words with which we begin our prayers each morning: “How goodly your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” Yet what does Balaam see that brings such poetry to mind?
I believe he sees the Israelite camp as described in the opening chapters of Sefer B’midbar. The twelve tribes have been mustered into four divisions, each billeted in one of the cardinal directions, each dwelling under its own ensign. Interior to each division is encamped one of the families of Levites. And central to it all, the ultimate dwelling place, God’s Mishkan, enshrouded in the cloud of the Divine Presence. The perfect, military arrangement of this band of refugees must have been breathtaking. Under its influence, Balaam utters his most famous words.
The problem is, this vision is only literally true. However goodly may be its tents and dwelling places, the community actually dwelling there is riven with dissension. We see this dissension in the rebellion over the manna, in the rebellion of Miriam and Aaron against Moses, in the rebellion of Korah against Aaron and Moses. We see it most poignantly in Moses’s sin at Meribah. We see it most tragically in the report of the spies. And we are about to see it most horrifically in the sin of Baal Peor – a sin committed at the instigation of the man who is here praising the beauty of the Israelite camp. Balaam’s vision takes in none of this.
Narrow and skewed as Balaam’s vision may be, it establishes a pattern: one of drawing broad and dubious conclusions about the Jews based on a misperception of reality. This pattern has become an essential element of antisemitism. It turns traits like resourcefulness, tenacity and achievement - traits developed in response to prejudice and exclusion - into the ill-gotten gains of their occult practices. Today, when I hear an angry street mob chant “the Jews will not replace us,” or I hear angry college students chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” - I hear a misperceived reality that blames the Jew for refusing to be a victim. And in that misperception, I hear the voice of that restaurant owner, and the voice of Balaam.
Those who misunderstand us are not wrong in seeing God’s arranging hand at work in our lives. But that Divine work is not in the orderly appearance of our tents and dwelling places. Rather it is in the possibility that such orderliness places in the Jewish soul. In that vision of brothers and sisters living side-by-side and in God’s presence, lives the hope of what the world can be when we shake off the myriad dissensions that pull us apart. It is not the orderliness that marks their outside but the faith that fills their inside which makes our tents such goodly places. It is that faith which we celebrate when we sing Balaam’s words.