On Saturday July 4th a Neo Nazi protest is scheduled for the streets of Golders Green. Organisers plan to march against the “Jewification” of the area, which is famous for its large population of orthodox Jews, high number of synagogues of varying denominations, and of course Carmellis. The Metropolitan Police have claimed there is nothing that they can do to fight back against the small far right minority who plan to dismember the Israeli flag with their bare hands and burn copies of the Talmud.
The protest in itself is shocking. However it is the choice to hold it on Shabbat, our day of peace and tranquility, that is even more horrific. Whilst police will be there to safe guard Jews going about their normal Shabbat morning walk to synagogue, how many will feel so threatened that they will choose not to leave their houses? How many will be feeling so intimidated that they will be stopped from living their normal lives?
This is another in a long string of events over the past year that has left the community shaken. Whether there is actually a threat of anti semitism, or it is just perceived, it doesn’t feel like a great time to be Jewish. Perhaps at the moment our Judaism feels more like a curse than a blessing.
It would appear that this is a theme going much further back than one would suspect. For here in this week’s Torah portion, which is arguably the most fairytale like in the whole of our Torah, we come across a man wishing to curse Israel for being a people who “dwell apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Our Parashah contains not only a talking donkey some 2000 years before Shrek but it also invites us into the mystical world of curses and sorcery. Although it is clear that the power of the curse was strongly believed amongst the Babylonians and ancient Israelites, the Rabbis were uncomfortable with the magical nature of the curse and used it instead as a lesson on the great power of the spoken word.
And yet here we are in the depths of the desert, faced with a man set to curse our people until the spirit of God changes his mind. The 18th century Ladino commentary, Me’am Loez, initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Culi, reflects on God’s intervention. When we know that the curse would be ineffective within our tradition, and the blessing was redundant for God had already blessed, why was it necessary to prevent Balaam’s curse? God foresaw the future sins and punishments of Israel and did not want the nation to be able to turn around and say, ‘It was Balaam’s curse that caused this.’
God makes the decision at this point that Israel cannot blame anyone else for their wrongdoings only themselves. Here we learn the need to take responsibility for our actions. Blaming Balaam for the future fate of our nation will not change what happens, and casting blame on another does not make the pain of our circumstances go away.
So if we cannot blame the ancient curse, or the other, perhaps it helps to cast blame on something far closer to home, being different, being Jewish. There is a common trope throughout the history of our people that we are victims of hatred because we are Jewish. They persecute us, we overcome them, let’s eat. We often look upon our Judaism as a curse that we carry with us, perhaps, just like the curse of Balaam, we need to turn it into a blessing.
There is a chasidic teaching that states:
The secret of Israel’s survival is that it has gone its own way, regardless of what other nations might think or say in praise or scorn.
It is not easy to be different. Whether we set ourselves apart by our clothing, our diet or our Saturday morning activities, there is often something that compels us to introduce ourselves not just by our names but also by our religion, as if we are warning of the curse in case of contamination. But there is also something about belonging to the tribe of Judaism that gives us a universal sense of pride and excitement when a new celebrity declares their faith and a universal sense of guilt and shame as a murderer does the same. Being Jewish is a collection of actions that compels us to think and act in a certain way, that urges us to be better people and helps guide us along the path. One is not just Jewish, one has to ‘be’ and ‘do’ Jewish.
The metropolitan police declared there are two choices for Jews to make in the face of the blatant anti semitism scheduled for this weekend: we can ignore it and hope it goes away, as a previous protest in Stamford Hill did, or we can protest it and march together against anti semitism.
I, however, would like to suggest that there is a third action. This weekend we can just be Jewish and go about our normal shabbat activities. We can celebrate the fact that we are different, set apart from the nations. This weekend especially we can be proud to be Jewish, not out of fear, or threat, but because the Judaism that we experience is a blessing. In the face of the protest it does no good to fight back, or to hide, but instead we should go to Synagogue with our heads held high, rejoicing in the Judaism that helps us to be the people that we are today. This weekend we do Jewish, we embrace our blessing, and we pray for a world where nation shall not lift up sword against nation.
Ken Yehi Ratson
May it be God’s will
Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.