Balak: Not Everyone Hates a Jew
I started my career at a new (and only) synagogue in Bradenton, Florida. Bradenton was known for the Tropicana OJ Factory, for the Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training base, and for dozens of churches, mainstream and evangelical. On several occasions, the local churches would invite a guest speaker from an organization whose primary work was to convert the Jews. Bradenton was a community with few Jews and almost no people of color. When I became the community’s first, full-time rabbi, I accepted the challenge of working in a place with a previous history of antisemitism. Granted, there was some resistance to my presence and there were even school board meetings to discuss teaching Creationism in the public schools. Bradenton, however, was not the reactionary place I anticipated. By the time I left the community six years later, I had spoken at many churches and had welcomed many church groups to our Sabbath service. I had also become a local media personality and spokesperson on Jewish issues. Jews were so welcomed that the week I moved back north the local paper ran a column (with my picture) thanking me for my years of service to the town. I admit to working tirelessly on interfaith issues, but the community’s position reception throughout my tenure was extremely positive and comforting.
I discovered that people had great respect and admiration for Jews; particularly for being public about our identity and proud of our religious and cultural traditions. The mass anti-Antisemitism I anticipated never materialized. There were of course challenges; especially when it came to allowing prayer in the public schools. Yet, most of the time I was able to address audiences which always remained respectful and never resentful.
Even the least paranoid among us must accept that Antisemitism lingers in our world. With each anti-Israel vote at the UN and every anti-Israel diatribe utter by some international leader, it is evident that anti-Israel general translates to antisemitic. Nevertheless, in my work with the New York Board of Rabbis and with our local churches, I also appreciate the vast number of people who have great regard for the Jewish people.
These thoughts come to mind when thinking about this week’s Torah portion of Balak. Balak is the king of Moab. He apparently feels threatened by the upstart Israelites; believing they might attack and conquer his nation. Balak hires the renowned soothsayer, Balaam, to place a curse on the Israelites. When Balaam finally arrives at the Israelite site, he notices a pleasant and impressive community not worthy of demonization. Balaam blesses the Israelite camp; knowing that he will not collect his fee for his services from an enraged Balak.
Balaam, once he actually encountered the Jewish people, realized that any hatred toward them was unfounded and irrational.
Balaam reminds us that throughout the world-past and present-there are many people who regard the Jewish people as worthy of great respect and honor.
My fantasy is that every antisemitic individual, organization or nation will read about Balaam and then re-consider its own narrow attitudes toward Jews. Perhaps (instead of all the condemnations), Israel would then be regarded as a nation, which welcomes immigrants from throughout the world, assists any country in peril, makes discoveries in science and technology, defends free speech of its citizens, seeks countless ways to secure peace and (though far from flawless) limits violence to its neighbors. Perhaps anyone who clings to a derisive anti-Jewish stereotype, will discover what Balaam discovered long ago: A nice people worthy of blessings.
|Major themes in this week’s triennial reading:
Question of the Week: Balaam strikes his donkey for refusing to travel. The donkey then tells his master that he has always been a faithful animal but cannot agree to this newest mission. WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE TORAH CREATING SUCH AN INDEPENDENT, TALKING ANIMAL?
For more information about these intriguing subjects, join us this Shabbat morning for our regular service. We begin at 9:30 am.