In thinking about this week’s Torah, and what’s going on in the world, here’s what I’m not going to talk about:
- Immigration policy
- Whether it’s okay to call detention centres “Concentration Camps”
- Whether it’s okay to tell those with whom you vehemently disagree to “go back to where you came from”
What I am going to do is tell a story:
There’s a king; a powerful king of a mountainous land.
And this king – his name is Balak – becomes frightened.
He’s frightened because there is a group of people who are getting closer and closer to his country, and he is afraid that they will overwhelm his land.
He’s worried that there are too many of them; that they will be a drain on natural resources; that they will encroach on his people’s property.
He’s not just afraid; he’s disgusted by them.
So he uses his kingly power – his bully pulpit – and summons a magician; a prophet; someone who can use the power of word to accomplish radical things.
The king asks this magician to do just that: to incite against these people – these foreigners – to drive them away.
But the magician also is afraid, and senses that this is not proper.
The king uses his great power and wealth to entice the magician to side with him.
The magician is torn: does he side with his higher beliefs, or does he take advantage of the great opportunities afforded him.
And – because this is a story from the Torah – the magician speaks with God – a representative, or the wellspring of these higher values.
And God emphatically declares: whatever that king may tell you to do, do not do it. Only listen to me. When he tells you to spew words of curses and hatred, only speak what I offer you.
The king implores the magician to curse the people – let’s call them, “the Children of Israel.”
But every time that the magician opens his mouth, the only words that emerge are sweet words of blessing.
The message of hatred and fear against a transient group is overpowered by a divine message of blessing.
A foreign magician – close to the upper echelons of power, wealth, and influence – sides with the marginalized; the wandering refugees; the freedom-searchers.
I told you I wasn’t going to talk about immigration or detention centres, or “going back to where you came from.”
Instead, I want to ask a theological question: Why does the king Balak and the magician Bilam – both non Jewish, both outside Israelite society – why do they benefit from God’s prophecy?
To put it another way: why does God intervene and speak with Bilam and change what happens? It could just as easily transpired that Bilam cursed Israel as Balak had wished – and then after the fact, they were punished.
Instead, whenever Bilam opens his mouth to curse Israel, God makes it so that blessings come out. Why? Why should they benefit from God’s presence?
Our teacher, Rashi – the medieval French commentator – offers a profound answer: So that nobody anywhere could ever use as an excuse: “I didn’t know the rules. If only I had known them, I would have been better.”
The idea here is that there are certain foundational ideas that you don’t get to avoid – whether you’re in or you’re out; whether you have power, or you don’t.
You can’t claim “we don’t play by those rules.” There are certain rules; certain core principles that apply to everyone.
And it’s interesting that Rashi pinpoints this particular story as conveying that idea. It’s not really a story about idolatry. Or Shabbat. Or Kashrut. Or Circumcision. Or any of the parts of the Torah that you might think we’re really supposed to focus on.
Instead, we have a story about someone in a position of power and his relationship to those not in power: those in a transient community; those just trying to get from one place to another in peace.
And the Torah says: this is the moment when you need to remember: nobody gets a pass; there’s not such thing as: “I didn’t know the rules.” The Torah conveys a vision of how the world is meant to be through a story about non-Israelites.
In the midst of stories of the Israelites wanderings through the desert, where Moses and Aaron and their families and tribes are the protagonists, the Torah takes a detour to tell a story that focuses on Balak, the evil ruler, and Bilam, the magician. The Israelites are passive players in this story – they are the “Other” lurking in the background. On the fringes; on the outside.
Now: a word of caution: It’s too easy to read this story and see it as advocating immigrant rights and an open-door policy. It’s too easy to cherry pick readings from the Torah as advocating specific public policies.
That’s not what I’m trying to do.
Because you can do that just as easily for more liberal perspectives as you can for more conservative ones; the Torah is not a modern political policy.
But you can’t escape the fact that the Torah has something very loudly to say here.
The Torah seems to be very weary of those who would use their political and military power; their wealth; and their bully-pulpit propaganda to disparage – or at worse, to harm – those outsiders.
The story ends with Bilaam – the prophet sent to curse the Israelites – instead offering them blessings.
“Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” he says.
How beautiful are your tents – the places where you live, children of Israel
Words so powerful, that even though they are the words of a foreign magician, they are taken from him and used in the morning prayer service said every day.
The story ends with blessing and beauty and recognition of the other.
It doesn’t resolve King Balak’s wishes by advocating a particular policy.
It doesn’t take a political stance.
It doesn’t advocate protectionism and it doesn’t really condemn xenophobia.
That’s not what the Torah wants us to know.
Instead, the Torah wants us to recognize a very simple message:
The places where people are just trying to live – even when transient; even when on the fringes of society – they can be beautiful. They require at the very least our attention, no matter how deep – and perhaps how understandable – our fears may be.
These places where people are just trying to live – what they demand must of all is our attention and care and blessings – not our curses.