Thoughts on Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9) – after Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Nice.
When we enter a synagogue it is traditional to recite this verse from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak:
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל
How good your tents are, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5)
In the context of the Torah portion, this is the view of Bilam, the outsider, as he stands on a hill overlooking the peaceful Israelite encampment.
The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that what so impresses Bilam about the encampment below him is that the tents are set up on an angle from one another. Thus one family, in its own tent, could not see directly into the neighboring family’s tent.
In effect this is the requisite counterbalance to the theme of another Biblical verse that we often sing at the start of our synagogue worship from Psalm 133 ---“Hiney Mah Tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad”/ “How good and pleasant it is to dwell together as brothers and sisters.”
We live in community with one another – yet at the same time we give each other enough space so that we don’t end up oppressing one another. And the balance of these qualities – the balance between “Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov” and “Hiney Mah Tov umah na’im shevet achim gam yachad” -- gives us harmony, well-being, shalom.
Parashat Balak takes its name from the evil King Balak of Moab, who hires Bilam to curse the Israelites. Yet Bilam, his eyes open to the reality before him, instead blesses the Israelites.
And, after this scenario has been repeated several times, at Numbers 24:25 we come to what might reasonably be expected to be the conclusion of the parasha, when the Torah reports:
“Bilam rose and went and returned to his place, and Balak, too, went on his way.”
This is the world I’m sure we’d all like to see. A world of communal friendship balanced with individual autonomy, where we care about one another but also where we “live and let live,” giving each other ample breathing space.
And yet, sadly, we would all have to be blind and deaf not to acknowledge that these recent days, weeks and months have also had their share of violence and terror totally inconsistent with the visions of “Mah Tovu ohalekha” or “Hiney Mah Tov u mah na’im”.
Our world today – with fatal acts of police brutality against African-Americans in some localities, with targeted murder of police officers in others, with terrorist attacks by Islamist fanatics here and there, and with prejudicial animosity against peace-loving Muslims there and here --- Our world today can also be seen like the world described at the end of our Torah portion.
For after Bilam and Balak part ways at the end of Numbers chapter 24, a different scene emerges in Numbers chapter 25. Those Israelites who had been so harmoniously dwelling together have now turned to apostasy ---- and religious zealots within their midst now engage in murder of the infidels No more “Mah Tovu Ohalekha, Yisrael”. Instead we have a plague in which 24000 souls are lost.
Which of these two versions of reality are preferable to us? If we read the Torah alone, we might get the impression that it’s the latter vision. The murders are committed by the leaders of the Israelites in response to Moses’ command in response to what Moses understands to be God’s will.
Extremists of all religious traditions – be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or otherwise --- and extremists of all secular political schools – be they capitalist or collectivist --- might embrace the sort of zealotry that the Torah at first glance seems to embrace ---
The sort of zealotry that prompts Pinchas, the son of the High Priest, to skewer an interfaith couple with a single thrust of his spear at the end of our Torah portion. Indeed, at the start of next week’s parasha, God rewards Pinchas with “brit kehunah olam tachat asher kiney leylohav” --- “the eternal covenant of the priesthood because of his zealotry for his God.” (Num. 25:13)
However, it has been Jewish tradition for the past two thousand years that the weekly Torah portion is accompanied by a “haftarah” --- a reading from the prophetic books of the bible which responds to themes in the Torah portion.
Haftarat Balak is from the Book of Micah, and Micah provides a much-needed counterpoint to the account of Pinchas’s zealotry.
He hearkens back to the language of that other vision of society earlier in our Torah portion, when Bilam had declared: “MAH TOVU OHALEKHA” / “How fair are your tents!”
Micah in the Haftarah (6:8) echoes back:
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
It has been told to you, O Mortal, what is good, and what does the Eternal seek from you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Justice must be tempered by mercy.
Zealotry must be tempered by humility.
And cynicism must be tempered by hope.
© Rabbi David Steinberg (July 15, 2016/ 10 Tammuz 5776)