Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 3 July 2009

Killing Us Softly

There are two figures of note in this week's parasha: Bilaam and Balak. While Bilaam is the star of the story, Balak seems to play an uncomfortable starring role. Is he a villian or is he just concerned about self-preservation?
"And Balak ben Tzipor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites." (Bm 22:2)
Remember that at the end of Chukas our ancestors had just finished opening up a can of whupass all over Sichon and Og, two Amorite kings living east of the Yarden river. From there they had moved west and were now on the banks of the river, just north of Balak's territory. Balak had good reason to fear that his country was next. After all the Moabites didn't have the greatest track record in wars:
"For Cheshbon was the city of Sichon, the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moav and taken all his land out of his hand, even unto the Arnon." (Bm 21:26)
Yes, God had warned Moshe Rabeinu against starting a war with either Moav or Ammon (Dev 2:18-19) but Balak had probably not been copied onto that memo. As far as he knew, there was a hostile force on his border and he had to act to preserve his country's sovereignty.
Except that our ancestors had a track record, so to speak, of not engaging in unwarranted aggression. At the border of Edom they withdrew in the face of military resistance and it was only after pece negotiations to secure safe passage failed with Sichon and Og's attack on them that they engaged in military action and conquered land. They had already reached the Yarden and their target was clearly the land west of it. Balak was to the south. In this light, he had nothing to fear.
Despite this, he still sends for Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael:
"Come now, I pray three, curse me this people for they are too mighty for me; perhaps I shall prevail that we may smite them and that I may drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom though cursest is cursed." (Bm 22:6)
Here some of his underlying hatred is revealed. The Bnei Yisrael are not in his land. They are on land his predecessor lost in war. He has no direct conflict with our ancestors, nor does he even send a delegation to them to inform them that they are on "stolen" land like the Ammonites would later on with Yiftach (Shoftim 11:12-13). He simply plots their destruction.
Bilaam, on the other hand, is a contrast to Balak. Unlike Balak he seems on the surface to lack ideological motivation. He's an important person, someone who literally has God's phone number, and he's quite prepared to work for anyone who pays him enough. He's as likely to divine the winning lottery ticket numbers for someone as he is to curse a nation he knows nothing about. Yet through the words of the commentators on Chumash, we can sense that his plans for Bnei Yisrael are as nefarious as Balak's, but in a much different way:
"And Bilaam said unto God: Balak the son of Tzipor, king of Moav, has sent unto me: Behold the people that is come out of Egypt, it covereth the face of the eart; now come curse me them, perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and shall drive them out. And God said until Balaam: Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people for they are blessed." (Bm 22:11-12)
Rashi expand on the conversation in an interesting fashion. Having been denied permission to go, Bilaam asks for permission to curse them where he is now. God replies "thou shalt not curse the people". He then asks for permission to bless them and God denies him, "for they are blessed" already and don't need his blessing.
The first part, wanting to curse them without going to Moav, is understandable. Bilaam has a lot of money to gain from a successful curse. If his power is genuine, what matters it if he does it in Aram or in Moav? But why is he asking to bless the people?
There are two ways that the nations of the world seek to destroy the Jewish people. The first, more obvious way, is Balak's method: open violence. Never mind that we're not bothering anyone or perhaps we're contributing greatly to where we live. The Jew is different, alien, disturbing, and he must be gotten rid of. Axes, swords, guns, gas chambers or nuclear bombs, they are all just a means to a Jew-free end. In many ways, this is an honest form of Jew hatred. Balak doesn't like us and doesn't pretend to want our good.
The other way the world rids itself of Jews is the diametric opposite, through kindess. Consider the Jews of China. Jews have been there for 1300 years and unlike the MiddleEast or Europe, the Chinese never persecuted them. As a result, they integrated, intermarried and eventually by 1948 almost completely disappeared. Much of China's Jewish population today arrived in the mid to late 20th century without connection to the original community.
Consider the United States. Thirty to forty years ago one Arab line against us was that New York was really the Jewish state as it had more Jews in it than Israel did. Today the latest statistics say that New York has little over one million identifiable Jews, even using the most lenient ("I sat next to someone Jewish in kindergarten") classification systems. The overall population has dropped by 33%, all in the absence of any shootings, ghettos or concentration camps. Assimilation has been a successful destroyer of our people.
And this is the reason for Bilaam's blessing. Recognizing that outright cursing of our ancestors wasn't allowed, he decided on a more subtle tactic. Note that he never refers to Bnei Yisrael by name. We are just "the people", another nation like every other and no different. His blessing would be for us to survive as just that, an undistinguished ethnic group with no special claim on destiny, in other words: he blessed us with assimilation.
This is why each of the blessings God makes him say emphasizes our differences:
"Lo, it is a people that shall dwell along and shall not be reckoned among the nations." (Bm 23:9)
"For there is no enchantment with Yaakov, neither is there any divinaiton with Israel." (Bm 23:23)
""He crouched, he lay down as a lion and as alioness who shall rouse him up? Blessed be everyone that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee." (Bm 23:9)
Too often in the world we find examples of the blessing Bilaam wanted to give us. Just consider all that has happened since the establishment of the Oslo Discord in 1993. Note how every time since then that Israel has tried to stand up for itself, to demand reciprocity from the Arab side or at least equal accountability, the response from the world community has been "Either fulfill your side of the deal without expecting anything back, or we won't be your friends".
How many Israeli governments failed to perform the basic task of governing, that of putting Israel's interests first, because of this threat? How often were our enemies appeased and granted huge concessions that threatened Israel's security so that foreign ministers and diplomats would smile at their Jewish counterparts and call them "friend"? Secular Israel has been desperate for the world's approval and the world has, in turn, used that desperation to employ Bilaam's "blessing" against them. Did not the European Union greet Bibi Netanyahu's election with threats to downgrade diplomatic ties if he dared stop Olmert and Livni's policies of unilateral surrender to the Arabs?
In that light, perhaps our most honest enemies are Hezbollah and Hamas. They have Balak's approach and have no problem showing their intransigent hatred of Israel and the Jewish people. It is of them we have to be least wary for we know where they stand. It is our friends, the Bilaams of the world, that we have to watch far more carefully. May God protect us from them and may they be forced soon to admit our unique destiny and truth.


Proud MO said...

I forgot who it was, but there were Rabbis who were against Napoleon when he tried to take over. Despite the anti-semitism that was going on there, and Napoleon's promise to treat Jews as equals, they were against him. Why? They said that it would cause assimilation, and it was better for Jews to remain observant with anti-semitism running rampant then to assimilate.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Remember that Napolean also wanted to recreate the Sanhedrin to help guide the Jews towards becoming good Frenchies as well.

This has been a long debate within our people - which is the lesser evil? Suffering discrimination whie strengthening our Judaism or living in safety and risking assimilation?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

In regard to Balak, you may want to take a look at Rashi's comment as to why God ordered Bnai Yisrael to attack Midian but not Moab. He maintains that Balak may have had a justified fear of a nation so large at his border and, as such, he was to be left alone. Now the fact that Rashi presents another answer already indicates that Rashi himself was not fully accepting of this position, but it is something to consider. While you are right to point out that an evil bias, such as anti-Semitism, can alter an honest view of a matter, there are also times where, while still wrong, it can be understandable for some person to adopt a position we may find offensive. This is ultimately Rashi's question. Was Balak's obviously wrong behaviour have some justifiable basis or did it not? In both ways, we must continue to ask this question.

Rabbi Ben Hecht