Parashat Balak 5781

23 June 2021 – 13 Tammuz 5781

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

On 16 June 2016, the MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist during the Brexit referendum campaign. It was a time of deep divisions across the nations of the UK. In response to her murder many people promised to do things differently and to help drive out the hatred and extremism that disfigured public life. And yet five years later, divisions in our society are still prevalent and often exacerbated on social media.

The Jewish community has experienced this first-hand during the past few weeks during and following the most recent round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Many of us felt stuck in the middle with demands to choose sides relentlessly asking us to ignore the human tragedy on both sides and the complexity at the heart of the conflict. And we all watched with great concern how this demand to choose sides resulted in an increase in antisemitism on social media and on the streets. Once more Jews have felt the threat of persecution even here in the UK.

Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History at Hebrew Union College in New York observes, that “this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches.”

Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites, is described as looking down at the Israelites’ camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, summing up the people’s history up to that point and well into the future: “There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). The medieval commentator Rashi, following a midrashic tradition, notes the ambivalence of this blessing: “When they [the Israelites] are joyful there is no nation joyful with them,” he teaches.

Rabbi Skloot reflects on the pain encapsulated in Rashi’s teaching, asking: “What is the virtue of joy if there is no one for us to share it with?” Through much of our people’s history, the Jewish people have felt this sense of estrangement, of being “a people apart.” Faced with the rejection from our neighbours, it led our people to focus inwards, strengthening the collective, rather than looking outwards.

Rabbi Dr. Sue Levi Elwell, the founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Centre, observes that the rabbis who created our liturgy expanded Balaam’s most famous words from Numbers 24:5: “Mah tovu ohaleicha – how great are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel” with four verses from Psalms (Ps 5:8, Ps 26:8, Ps 95:6, Ps 69:14) written in the first person. She suggests that this enables “each worshipper to claim a place as a member of the collective […] transforming Balaam’s God of war into a God of chesed (loving-kindness).”

But Rabbi Elwell challenges us to go further. She proposes that we should read Numbers 24:5 in combination with the words from the book of Isaiah (42:6-7):

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel! I, the Holy One, have called you in righteousness, and taken you by the hand. I am the One who created you and made you a covenant people, a light to the nations: to open eyes that are blind, to bring the captive out of confinement.”

Reading the words of Mah Tovu in this context, we are challenged, as Rabbi Elwell desires, to “move beyond the narrow, dichotomous thinking” of us and them. We are invited to ask ourselves if we are ready to expand our tents to reflect “the utopian and achievable goal of moving beyond oppositional concepts of native/stranger, friend/foe, chosen/rejected,” insider/outsider,….

In the coming week, I will have the privilege to visit Israel and meet with ministers of the new government. Covid-related travel anxiety aside, I am excited to learn more about how the political parties that make up this government were able to rise up to the challenge of expanding the tent. Reflecting on this week’s portion, I think it will be appropriate to recite Balaam’s words as I step off the plane. Mah tovu – how good it is to see a group of such diverse opinions, ideologies, values and interests unite in a shared hope for change.

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