D’var Torah: Balak

By Editor | Blogs

Jul 11

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I present to you the characters in the drama of this week’s Torah Portion- Balak:

-Balak Ben Tzippor, King of Moab, who fears the Israelites.

-Bilaam, Non-Israelite Gentile prophet Balak hires to curse the Israelites, but who listens to our God.

-The Ass who sets Bilaam on the right path.

-“Optics” is the lead character- not a person but a new word in the news- which is how something looks depending on your point of view, i.e. where you stand, how a situation appears to you and why.

As the story opens Balak wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites because they have grown numerous. Balak feels threatened. Bilaam will not do it; he listens to our God.

The prophet is taken to two different locations, each of which gives him only a partial view of the people of Israel. At both spots he can neither curse nor bless. Then the donkey sort of gives him a kick and through this talking donkey he knows he can only bless the people of Israel. He is then taken to the top of the mountain from which he can see the entire people of Israel, not just part of it. Here is where optics play a starring role. What Bilaam says is influenced by both his geographical and moral point of view.

Let me break it down for you:

-The partial people point of view (or as distinguished rabbi of blessed memory Herman Kieval calls it- the “valley view” which means lower morally not just geographically) is how we view others as individuals or even as a group when our optics are limited and partial, skewed and incomplete, which leads to stereotypes and generalizations. Examples might be include that all Jews have big noses or all Jews are rich or the Jews control the banks and the media. These kinds of words are often uttered by someone who may know one or two Jews and judges all of us by a few “bad apples” among us.

-The whole people point of view (or as Kieval would call it the “mountain view”) suggests seeing an entire group, a whole people, and being able to get the complete picture, seeing the forest and not just the trees. The result in this portion is that this prophet, not one of our people, is able to see us in totality and therefore bless us with the words of the “Ma Tovu”- “How good are thy tents Oh Jacob, thy dwelling places Oh Israel.” Interesting isn’t it that the first words in our prayer book are words of praise spoken by a non-Jew about the Jewish people. Is it subtly describing an ideal world which we should pray for first.

By taking a step back to see the whole forest and not just one or two of the trees, i.e. by educating ourselves thoroughly about others we can take the mountain view, the moral high ground. The recent joint meal to end a day of Ramadan which took place at SAMS is the perfect example of the kind of mutual learning which dispels ignorance and cultivates understanding and mutual respect. One of the results of that communal gathering was that the organization Salaam-Shalom, a group of Jewish and Muslim women, sent SAMS an Olive Tree, a symbol of peace which can only happen when people see each other in their entirety as individuals or groups- the mountain view.

So the star of the drama of this weeks Torah portion is Optics which is all about where we stand and what we know. It means being open-minded and not closed-minded. It means being non-judgmental and not judgmental. It means especially being educated and not ignorant. All of these help us reach the mountain view.  BTW, we Jews can be just as guilty of staying in the valley view in the way we talk about people of other faiths or even how we deal with our own fellow Jews (think about the recent issues with Israel over conversion and the Kotel).

To correct your sight (optics) in this scenario, you don’t need an optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist. You need only to open your eyes, open your minds and open your hearts.

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