Seventy Faces of Torah On the Impact of What We Say, and How We See (Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9)
It was only a few months ago that we saw graphic and horrific images of refugee children dying on European beaches, while Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration and the building of a Great Wall dividing the United States from undesirable Mexican immigrants. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom (maybe less ”united” these days), the Brexit campaigners, after whipping up a storm of intemperate falsehoods about the impact of the free movement of labor, were startled to learn that cursing immigration actually worked wonders with a disenfranchised population. They caused Britain to dismantle its most successful trading and strategic partnership.
Cursing immigrants and inciting hatred against them has long been a feature of frightened and controlling politicians. Balak, the biblical king of Moab, was mortified to see the traveling Israelites crossing his land. He had witnessed what happened to the king of the Amorites (21:25-26), who was defeated and destroyed when he would not let the Israelites pass through his land, and then to the king of Bashan (21:35) who was also completely annihilated when trying to battle the Israelites. So Balak chose a different way to curse the immigrants. He sought the power of curses from the soothsayer Balaam, proficient in words of hatred and harm.
Despite the fact that God warns Balaam not to go ahead (through the instrument of extra-ordinary events and a flashing sword), Balaam is prepared to pursue his commission blindly because he is in denial, and to close his eyes to injustice and just listen to the invective of his leader.
Being blind to the issues ahead is an underlying theme of this story. In verse 22:2, “Balak, son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” He sees, but fails to understand the events engulfing him and his neighbors. He calls upon a “seer” to prophesy and to curse the Israelite nation, but Balaam does not even see what is seen by his ass, who blocks the way. (Comically, it seems that Balak viewed Balaam the way that Balaam himself now views the unruly ass, and Balak, too, will get his comeuppance from he trying to make his soothsayer do what he wants.) Only when God opens Balaam’s eyes does he see what is truly good (mah tovu). From all perspectives, Balaam now sees the essence of goodness in the scene before him, and into the distant future (23:17-24).
Many view immigrants and refugees in a way that provides a stimulus to their prejudice and racism. Xenophobia and isolationism have become popular political sentiments in Western societies. Much of this is fostered by the concomitant issues of deprivation, unemployment, and loss of cultural hegemony in indigent populations. But our moral imagination demands that we see the humanity of the other, while at the same time seeking benefit, economic prosperity, and security for all, particularly for the next generation who will be raised in increasingly multicultural environments.
My 95-year-old mother, a child refugee from Nazi Germany, settled in Birmingham, England, trained as a nurse, married a refugee doctor, and raised a family. Birmingham had a high influx of West Indian and Pakistani immigrants from the 1950s onwards, and from the beginning my parents worked as Jews to build interfaith and interracial understanding amongst all the ethnic, racial, and religious groups in their city. Despite these cultural differences, Birmingham has been a city of tolerance and acceptance for over 70 years.
Just this past year, Birmingham invited the first group of Syrian refugees to settle in the city, and my mother was invited to speak at the official welcome. She said: “Welcome to our newest refugees from one of the oldest in the city of Birmingham. I am a former refugee of Nazi oppression who has lived here for nearly 70 years. I have been grateful for the opportunity this city has afforded me to lead a normal life of work, family and friends in an atmosphere of good and kind neighbours and interfaith relationships. In this year of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, I can quote the words of Coriolanus who says ‘What is a city but the people’. May you become loyal enthusiastic Brummies (native of Birmingham) like me!”
We cannot be in denial about the needs of refugees, asylum seekers, or migrant workers in our time. We need to open our eyes to the potential for goodness and celebration in welcoming new peoples into our midst. Germany took a bold step in admitting a million refugees, and will undoubtedly change as a result.
We here in the US cannot let decades of painstaking interfaith and intercultural work be undermined by cruel rhetoric and harsh curses. Beyond the issue of immigration and refugees, there is so much intergroup work to be done; we will need to work even harder to build bridges between law enforcement and African-Americans, between religious fundamentalists and lesbian and gay communities.
The irony for Balak is that his commission to Balaam has an element of truth within it:And now come pray and curse for me this people, for it is greater than me” can also be read literally as “it is too great from me” – atzum hu mimeni. For in time, the biblical Ruth (of whom we read just a few weeks ago on Shavuot)—and who the rabbis considered a descendent of Balak (as in the Talmud, Nazir 23b)―will come to be a mother of the royal Davidic and messianic line.
Only when we open our eyes to the sanctity of all human life and our interdependence on this planet will we be able to serve as nations committed to peaceful and industrious partnerships; communities and societies celebrating difference; and individuals with open eyes and hearts, welcoming the stranger, the lost child, and the refugee.
Rabbi Michael Shire PhD is the Chief Academic Officer and Dean of the Shoolman Graduate School at Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He serves as chair of the Association of Institutions of Higher Jewish Education, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Jewish Education. He is the founder of Torah Godly Play, a spiritual pedagogy for Jewish education.