Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)
Turning Fear into a Blessing
By: Rabbi Danny Burkeman*
Imagine the scenario: just across the border, a significant number of people are gathering. They come from a different place, they speak a different language, and they have different cultural norms. We can all imagine what would happen.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen it all too often. In political debates the question isn’t whether to let them in or not; rather the “debate” becomes a shouting match over who will be stricter in limiting their entry. Other politicians will use derogatory language to talk about these people and how strange, different and foreign they are. And many will play on people’s fears by speaking about the existential threat that our way of life faces if these strangers are allowed in.
In picturing this scenario we don’t need to specify a country, because we have seen this situation played out in various places across the globe. The countries involved and the languages spoken may be different, but the fear of the other seems to be a global phenomenon that politicians use to advance their own agenda and motivate people to vote.
Two thousand plus years ago, getting the vote out or electoral success might not have been the motivating factor, but the fear of the other was nonetheless alive and well. Our Torah portion begins: “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because the people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites.” (Numbers 22:2-3). In these two verses the fear is palpable and as is all too often the case today, the flames of that fear are stoked as Moab says to the elders of Midian: “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:4). The way that the Israelites are spoken about is not so different from the way that strangers, refugees and immigrants are spoken of today; the metaphors may have changed, but the meaning remains the same.
It is worth remembering that the incident with the Amorites came about after a peaceful offer was rejected. “Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land; we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well; but we will go along by the king’s high way, until we are past your borders’” (Numbers 21:21-22). Had the Amorites allowed them to pass through peacefully, perhaps Balak would have followed suit and allowed the Israelites through, but he did not and instead allowed his fear of the stranger to dominate.
In that world, rather than travel bans and border controls, the next step was to get a qualified person to curse them with the hope of stopping their progress. Despite God’s opposition, Balaam eventually accepted the call to curse the Israelites, although the angel made it clear that “you must say nothing except what I tell you” (Numbers 22:35). Balaam was brought to curse the Israelites, but in the end he blessed them with the words that God intended him to speak.
Amongst the blessings offered by Balaam we find the line: “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). This incident in which the Israelites were supposed to be cursed turned into a blessing, and one that continues to be felt today. We recite this line from Balaam at the beginning of all of our synagogue services in the Mah Tovu, as we mark the transition from the outside world into the sacred space of the synagogue community.
As this line appears in the context of a passage of Torah that responds to the fear of the stranger with a blessing, perhaps there is also a secondary meaning to this line.
In society we have the potential to build ohalim – tents, and these provide us with shelter and a place to live. But we strive to create mishkanot – dwelling places, something more than mere tents. It is important to remember that for a home to become a mishkan it must contain within it the Shechinah, that element of God’s divine presence. We can only build mishkanot when we welcome the stranger, who was also created in the image of God, to dwell amongst us.
This line from Balaam is not just a curse turned into a blessing, turned into a daily prayer; it is also a critique of Balak’s agenda in seeking curses in the first place. When we replace our fear of the stranger with love, then we have the power to make our homes into mishkanot, places that our worthy of God’s dwelling.
*Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Massachusetts, USA. He is a former WUPJ Board Member and was a member of the inaugural cohort of the UJA Federation of New York’s Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders. To hear more of his Torah commentary tune in to his weekly podcast Two Minutes of Torah (available on the JCast Network and iTunes), which was included as one of the Top Seven Jewish Podcasts. He is married to Micol and is the proud father of Gabriella and Benjamin.