Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Balak

Every morning, we begin by offering a word of thanks to the source of creation. We made it to a new day. Whatever one thinks about creation, the one point upon which we all can agree is that we have another opportunity to make something monumental happen. During a morning worship service, one of the first pieces of traditional liturgy comes from this week’s Torah portion.The “evil” King Balak sent the “pagan” prophet Bilaam on a journey to curse Israel. As the prophet approached the encampment, he could not help but bless the people, instead, “How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel.”

Every morning, we celebrate the story of Bilaam’s return from “The Dark Side.” We relish in how God can force him to recite only blessings without derision. How wonderful is this story? For all ages, we get to share in the power of blessing.

In stopping to think critically about this ritual, I grew troubled. We love it when our enemy learns to bless us. What about our obligation to learn to bless them? If the purpose of this text is to teach us to bless, how is it that we thrive on demonizing the “other” amongst us? How can we celebrate Bilaam’s epiphany and not force ourselves to look past our own prejudices? Ok, the text speaks of Balak as the evil King. You know, if I had heard that two million unknown people were thundering in my direction and that they were involved in war after war, I would be worried. I would seek to protect my kingdom. One should marvel that Bilaam could grow to a place of understanding. It is a miracle that we can overcome our prejudices and our fear for/of the unknown other. Were the epiphany not enough, Bilaam could have denied the king and walked away. Instead, he stayed and asked God to bless the encampment and the people therein.

How little we know of each other! I walked through an anti-Muslim demonstration a few years back. I asked the people if they had ever met and spoken with a Muslim. The number of people who said something to the effect of, “No, and I never want to,” was simply alarming. How can you hate something about which you know nothing? No different was the person who thought I was a good “White” person until he found out I was Jewish, and then decided that I was no longer white. No different is the bigotry that determines a loving person is incapable of making life decisions for a life partner simply because he and his partner are the same gender. No different are any of the ignorances that drive us apart … before we ever get to know who and what it is that we shun.

I do not believe that any hate is ever appropriate. I do believe that there are people of whom we must be careful, but that is because of things that we know that they do or have done. I also affirm that tradition teaches us that the gates for healing and atonement must always be kept open. Affirming hate slams these gates shut. Moreover, we cannot justify hateful rhetoric because of our lack of understanding of someone’s race, culture, faith, gender, politics, or any of the adjectives that might define one’s life orientation.

Repeatedly, Torah teaches us to love the stranger, reminding us that in the eyes of others, we are strangers. This week, Torah teaches us to overcome our prejudices and reach out to experience each other’s blessings. If we are people of faith, whatever religion we espouse, we cannot do otherwise and call our behavior Godly. Shabbat Shalom.