Parashat Hashavua for Balak
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
In watching the news, I am often distressed by certain so-called leaders as they attempt to rally their people to a cause by calling on the struggles they have endured together in the past. While that tactic may be effective in the short term, over time, that cohesiveness will fade as the people come to realise that unifying against an outside threat will only last as long as that outside threat exists. However, unifying because of a common idea, value or shared heritage is much more compelling and longer lasting. It reflects a bond for something, not because of something.
When we think of Balak, the first thing that comes to mind is a talking donkey. However, there is a more subtle message in this week’s parasha aside from talking donkeys and blessings. We read an interesting dialogue between Bilaam and God, which simply paraphrased as:
God: “Don’t curse the Israelites.”
Bilaam: “Then I will bless them.”
God: “They don’t need your blessing. They are already blessed.”
Rashi, a famous medieval commentator, expands on and continues with a parable:
People say of the hornet: I want neither your honey nor your sting. In this case, God is saying to Bilaam, we want neither your blessings nor your curse.
It has been said many times of the Jews that one of two things will eventually be our downfall: oppression and acceptance. Through oppression, others will destroy us, but through acceptance, we will assimilate and disappear on our own. Rashi’s interpretation of God’s response focuses on assimilation: “We neither want nor require your help. We will find our own way to survive and thrive.”
According to Rashi, God is instructing the Israelites to seclude themselves and find their ultimate success by not interacting with those around them. If one were to look at it from the point of view of the Israelites, that approach makes sense. They were oppressed in slavery and are constantly attacked in the desert by enemies. Yet through all that, they managed to thrive, become a united people with a common goal and destiny.
However, that vision of a people united through the adversity leaves many of us feeling perhaps a bit wanting. Firstly, it does not take into account outsiders who have helped them, such as Yitro, Moses’ father in law. Secondly, it diminishes the beauty of our tradition and heritage to be something that is not in and of itself compelling, but something we have to do because we have been attacked, oppressed or persecuted.
That salient point is often forgotten. While the experience of slavery in Egypt is important, it is not what made us who we are. It is the exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the growth as a community in the wanderings that gave us the foundations of a people.
Focusing on the trials and tribulations are a temporary panacea to group cohesiveness. While those experiences are no doubt powerful and visceral, they are fleeting and not unifying in the long term. It is the parts of our history and heritage that illustrate what we are and what we do that serve as the eternal bonds of our people. And that is the point of God’s point to Bilaam. We do not need an external attack or threat to bless us with unity. We already have that blessing in the richness of our shared history and heritage.