Jew, Muslim And Christian Can Work Hand In Hand To Make A Safer Place For All [Parshat Balak By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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The dictionary definition of an obsession is a “persistent and disturbing preoccupation with something.” Obsession is usually seen as being negative, an unhealthy fixation with something, and when humans get obsessed with things we begin to act differently, less rationally.

Let’s look at some obsessive behaviour in the parsha.

Balak, King of Moab, is obsessed with destroying the Jewish nation encamped nearby, and decides to have them cursed by the most accomplished gentile prophet of the day, the revered Bilaam, son of Beor. To this end he sends him messengers bearing promises of great rewards if the Jews are destroyed.

Bilaam was no less obsessed with the destruction of the Jews, that bitter and inexplicable thread that runs through the entire history of mankind, and desires strongly to fulfil this task. He knew, however, as a prophet, that he could only prophesy the words or visions that G‑d instructed him, and he asked G‑d for permission to go. The first time he asked he was told no, but the second time permission was granted, and Bilaam set off to Moab, so excited about his upcoming imprecations that he rose early and saddled his own donkey.

So obsessed is Bilaam with his mission that he continues even when his donkey acts oddly three times, stopping still or diverging from the path; even when his donkey starts communicating with him, and even when he sees an angel standing in his path brandishing a sharpened sword. Most of us at that point would either give up and go back home, or at least renounce consumption of alcohol for a few months! Bilaam presses on.

When the king and the prophet finally meet, they waste no time. Altars are built, animals are sacrificed and Bilaam is taken to a vantage point from where he can see the massed tents of the nation of Israel. Three times he tries to curse the Jewish nation, and three times he is forced to pronounce blessings instead. Why didn’t Balak and Bilaam get the message? Maybe, just maybe, they were too obsessed with hatred to see the blindingly obvious.

This past couple of weeks we have seen lots of obsession.  Good obsession and bad obsession.

We have seen an outpouring of hatred, blind hatred, by people so blinded by their obsession with hate that even the most innocent victim becomes a valid target for kidnap and murder. The photograph at the top of this page shows two sweet little girls, having fun together. But the fun that they are having is not really fun at all. The sign they are making with their fingers is the number three, proudly proclaiming to the world that three Jews have been kidnapped. Thousands of similar images went live across the web as people obsessed with hatred revelled in the fact that Jewish mothers and fathers were agonising over their missing loved ones. As young teenagers prayed and pleaded to G‑d that their friends be found alive and well, those blinded by hate savoured the sweet taste of victory.

On the other side there was a healthy obsession, an obsession of love and prayer. Hundreds of thousands of Jews across the globe shared the pain of three anxious families; prayed for them, studied for them, gave charity for them and sent them messages of love, warmth and solidarity.

Two worlds, so close yet so far apart. What kind of a world do we live in where even women, children and babes-in-arms are considered the enemy, an enemy in whose murder one can rejoice?

We can look around the world today and unfortunately we see so much unhealthy obsession. People obsessed with hate of others, with jealousy and anger; people obsessed with control of others, with having more than others, above all else. Is this the man and woman that were created in the image of G‑d?

So what can we do to counter all these negative obsessions?

Paul Carvel wrote, “Passion is a positive obsession. Obsession is a negative passion.” There are positive obsessions, things we should be passionate about, and maybe if we focus on those we can help balance an often crazy world.

There are healthy obsessions out there, obsessions to find cures for the sick, obsessions to help the Third World, obsessions to eliminate pain and suffering, obsessions to stop violence, racism and xenophobia.  All these are good obsessions to have.

We should be obsessed with making the world a better place, not just in a physical sense but in a spiritual way too. We do that by connecting with our soul, and by helping others connect with theirs. How do we connect with our soul … by weaning ourselves off our other obsessions: TV, internet, email, smartphones … and by keeping more Shabbat, studying more Torah, giving more Tzedaka and keeping more mitzvot.

Let’s hope that by doing that we can bring peace and blessing to a world riven with hatred and strife, a world in which Jew, Muslim and Christian can work hand in hand to make a safer place for all. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Zalman lent

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