Thursday, 14 Jul 2016

Written by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah


This week’s parashah, Balak, takes the form of a mini novella in the Book of Numbers. As the story unfolds, we learn that every time the sorcerer, Bilam, hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites, attempted to fulfil his mission,  ‘the Eternal One put a word in Bilam’s mouth’ (Numbers 23:5;16), and he blessed them instead. At King Balak’s command, Bilam tried four times – but to no avail. On the third attempt, he proclaimed (Num. 24:5):

Mah-tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishknotekha Yisrael.

How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.

So: blessings instead of curses. This particular verse will be familiar to the members of Liberal and Reform synagogues, because it is sung at the start of the Shabbat morning service. In some synagogues, Mah-tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishknotekha Yisrael, can also be found adorning the front gates or the doors of the sanctuary.

Why? Why do we choose to quote the utterance of a Moabite sorcerer about us? Why don’t we describe ourselves? What does our fondness for reciting the praise and admiration of others tell us about how we regard ourselves as a people? Perhaps, it’s a case of wish fulfilment: Non-Jews are forever cursing us – if only they would bless us instead! And so, we hang onto the words of blessing bestowed on us by others, from Bilam until now. We shrink with fear from the anti-Semites, but how we adore and acclaim the philo-Semites!

A preoccupation with how others see us does not begin with the story of Bilam. In parashat Sh’lach L’kha, which commences at Numbers chapter 13, we learn that the Eternal One tells Moses to send twelve men, each one a tribal leader, to reconnoitre the land beyond the Jordan. Ten of the men return after forty days, full of fear and dread. According to their testimony, conceding that the land was, indeed, ‘flowing with milk and honey’, with abundant fruit (13:27), it was also a place that ‘devours its inhabitants’ (13:32), and was populated by giants. And there is a very interesting detail in their account. They declare that just as these giants made them feel like ‘grasshoppers’ in their own eyes, so they appeared as ‘grasshoppers’ in their eyes (13:32-33).

It seems that from the outset, seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, or rather projecting our sense of ourselves onto others and reading ourselves through them, is part of our existential condition as a people. The Torah uses the expression b’ney Yisrael to designate the people that originated as ‘the sons of Israel’, but it is our other name that tells us more about this existential condition. In flight from his mission to go to Nineveh, Jonah boards a boat bound for Tarshish, instead. A storm ensues. Discovering that the stranger in the hold is responsible, the sailors bombard him with questions (Jonah 1:8): ‘Tell us, why you have brought this misfortune upon us, what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and what people are you?’ Jonah’s immediate reply identifies him as a member of an itinerant people: Ivri anokhi – ‘I am a Hebrew’ (1:9). Ivri – ‘Hebrew’ – a noun based on the Hebrew root, Ayin Beit Reish, to cross over. Jonah had a choice: he could have obeyed God and left home to go to Nineveh, or, he could have taken flight and gone somewhere else. Either way, it doesn’t seem that staying put was an option. He was an Ivri – a member of a migratory people that is always on the move.

When we read parashat Balak, we encounter the descendants of Jacob/Israel and the children and grandchildren of the ‘mixed multitude’, who escaped Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38) in the fortieth year of their journey. But the people have not simply been wandering in the wilderness; they have been crossing over territory occupied by other peoples. We read towards the end of the previous parashah, Chukkat that ‘Israel sent messages to Sihon, King of the Amorites, saying, “let me pass through your country….”’ (Numb. 21:21). The King of the Amorites refuses and so a battle ensues.  The parashah concludes with the people camping on the steppes of Moab, on the east side of the Jordan from Jericho, having defeated the Amorites (Numb. 22:1). And so, parashat Balak opens: ‘Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites’ (Numb. 22:1) – and then proceeded to hire a sorcerer to curse them.

I am not reviewing this narrative as an account of actual historical events, but rather to explore what it means for us to frame our existence as a people within a narrative about a journey that involved crossing the borders that marked the territory of other peoples on our way to a land across the Jordan occupied by other peoples. Significantly, although the story continues beyond the five books of the Torah in the subsequent books of the Bible, with the description of the settlement of the people in Canaan, that settlement is constantly disrupted down the centuries as a consequence of our encounters with other peoples – in particular, with successive empires from the Assyrians in 722 BCE through the Babylonians in 586 BCE. And beyond the pages of the Bible: the Persians; the Greeks; the Romans. To quote from parashat Sh’lach L’kha: our journeying has continued ‘from Egypt until now’ (Numb. 14:19). No wonder we see ourselves through the eyes of others. No wonder, when the choice is between suffering the curses inflicted by others, or, alternatively, basking in their blessings, we choose the latter.    

 Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.