Parshat Balak (5770)

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“I hope you heard that?  She called me a noble steed …  she thinks I’m a steed!” – Donkey in Shrek I

Long before the Shrek script was written the idea of a talking donkey was making the rounds.  But this one was not for comedy effect,  it was for real.  In this week’s parshah we read of one such event in yet another perilous chapter in the history of the  Jewish People.  On the way from the  Sinai desert to claim their inheritance – the Land of Israel – they pass near Moav, the territory of King Balak. They had no intention of going to war with Balak, but he had other plans. Still smarting from the Jewish victory over fellow monarchs  Sichon and  Og, he decided to stop the people in their tracks – but with the power of the tongue, not the power of the sword.

Bilaam was a mercenary, a hired gun, and a prophet to boot.   He possessed the power to curse others and cause them real harm.  As he also despises the Jews he agrees to Balak’s proposal to clear the Middle East of  Jews by hurling imprecations upon them from afar.  He is warned by G-d that he will only be permitted to say the words that G-d places in his mouth – but presumably reasons he will find a way to get around that,  and sets off on his malevolent mission.

Bilaam and his retinue head for Moav by donkey and en route we witness a strange event where man is suddenly able to communicate with beast. We read of a fascinating dialogue which takes place between Bilaam and his donkey,  as an angel with a drawn sword obstructs their way.

The mission then continues and Balak introduces them to the first vantage point,  Bamot-Baal, whence to curse the Jews.  Preparations are made,  sacrifices are offered, but to no avail:  When Bilaam finally opens his mouth the words that form are blessings rather than the curses he intended.

Twice and three times this happens and each time Balak gets more angry as his guest showers involuntary blessings upon the Jewish people – beautiful blessings which are printed verbatim in the  Torah and have even been absorbed into some of our daily liturgy.

One of the sentences declaimed by Bilaam from his lofty vantage point overlooking the Israelite camp is:  Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishke’notecha Yisrael – Your tents are so good, O Jacob, (and) your dwellings, O Israel!

Bilaam sees something special in the Israelite camp, so special that it deserved praise.

So the verbal assault on the Jewish people has failed – what now? As Bilaam is about to leave an irate Balak – who is seething at his failure to destroy an innocent people – he gives him a small piece of advice. “Remember,” he told Balak, “there is another way to destroy the Jews.  The G-d of  the Jews cannot bear immorality.  Corrupt them with sins of the flesh and their own G-d will destroy them.

Sad advice indeed,  but efficient.  The Moabite women are now enlisted as a secret weapon in the bid to tempt the men of Israel, and sure enough it works. The tragic results are detailed at the end of the parshah.

So the great gentile prophet Bilaam succeeded in his task – the demoralisation and devastation of the Jewish people. The secret weapon he shares with Balak is truly a potent one, with the ability to spread havoc and devastation, to break down marriages and split communities. Without morality we lose our natural defences and our Divine protection, like Samson shorn of his flowing locks.

But in Bilaam’s Divine prophecies there is hidden a secret too. The secret of our strength, and the secret to our ability to withstand all we have endured throughout history.

In the words, “Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishke’notecha Yisrael – Your tents are so good, O Jacob, (and) your dwellings, O Israel!” lies the secret to Jewish continuity and survival. There is something really special in those tents, those dwellings and those communities.

The secret lies in the Synagogue; in the yellowed pages of the siddur and in the lovingly inked calligraphy on the parchment scrolls of the Torah;  it lies in the warm velvet cover soft to the touch, and in the young child raised by a doting parent to kiss the Sefer Torah;  it lies in the outstretched hands of the Kohanim as they bless the members of the congregation, man,  woman and child.

The secret lies in the Books;  in the pages of the Talmud, the Mishna and the Midrash the Jewish people  find an anchor of safety and security, a haven of permanence in a rapidly changing world. The familiar typography of the Talmud,  with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot nestling side by side evokes generations of Jewish scholarship, of scholarly sages’ passionate debate, parrying intellectual blows with flashes of inspiration and wisdom.

The secret lies in the School;  in the classroom filled with the singsong sounds of the daily prayers and the study of the letters of the Aleph-Bet;  in the little  Abba and Ima on Friday and in the walls covered with pictures and crafts, for Purim and  Pesach,  Shavuot and  Sukkot.

The secret lies in the Shabbat;  in the gently flickering candlelight at the Shabbat table,  surrounded by children, siblings, parents and grandparents, reminiscing over the steaming chicken soup and challah, the chopped liver and the gefilte fish; in the family banter and the joyous laughter and in the sweet smile of young children asleep at the table.

The secret lies in the Home;  in the iconic symbols of our heritage,  the Chanukah Menorah and the Shofar, the Mezuzot and the Kiddush becher,  the Havdala candle and the spices and the bookshelves filled with Jewish books; in the bed carefully prepared for guests and the Tzedakah box filled with charity for the needy; in the modesty of dress and the laws of Family Purity, and in the respect for parents and grandparents.

The secret lies in Prayer;  in the worn leather tefillin straps, and the black leather boxes wrapped on the head and the arm, insignia worn with honour and pride.  Lovingly handmade according to ancient tradition these tefillin trace our heritage through history, alongside the striped woolen tallit with its knotted fringes.  King David wore these, as did Moses, Joshua, Samson, Solomon and countless others throughout the annals of Jewish history.

The secret lies in Community; in the communal joy and excitement as a new soul enters the world, and the care and interest as it progresses stage by stage through Brit Milah,  Pidyon Ha’ben, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and Chuppah; through kindergarten,  school, university and the workplace.

The secret lies in Respect; in the silent comfort and camaraderie as a soul passes over from this world to the next, leaving grieving relatives behind; in the week of shivah and the outpouring of love and affection, of kindness and generosity along with wonderful memories of the deceased and of the footprints they left behind them.

Together these pieces of the jigsaw make up the secret of what is “goodly” about the Israelite tents and what is special about their dwellings and communities. Together these pieces give us the strength and pride to stand undaunted in the face of adversity and to defy those who would destroy us.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Zalman Lent

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