Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah -Balak
Even while away on Sabbatical, I have the need to study and write. Hence, my weekly commentaries. Sometimes, the writing is cathartic and healing. Sometimes, it is geared to provoke my continued thought. My hope and prayer is that what I write helps provide one, the other, or both results for those who read them.
Then there are those moments when I read something and I almost feel like dropping the microphone and saying, “This is it – can’t say it better.” This is one such week.
This week’s portion tells the story of a pagan king (Balak) and prophet (Bilaam) who set out on a journey to curse the people of Israel. Upon arriving at the encampment, the prophet looks out over the people and prepares to curse them. What comes from his mouth, though, are words of praise that found their way into our everyday morning liturgy. “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.” Translated, the prophet blessed the beautiful and goodliness of the people and encampment of Israel.
In reading a variety of texts, I came across this piece from the Talmud (Shabbat 127.b):
The Sages taught: One who judges another favorably is himself judged favorably. There was an incident involving a certain person who was hired to work for a far-off homeowner for three years. On the eve of the day to leave, he said to the homeowner: Give me my wages, and I will go and feed my wife and children. The homeowner replied, “I have no money.” The worker then asked for wages in produce. He said to him, “I have none.” The worker then asked for wages in the form of land. The homeowner said to him, “I have none.” The worker then asked for wages in animals. He replied, “I have none.” The worker then asked for wages in cushions and blankets. He said to him: I have none. The worker took his tools and went to his home in anguish.
After the festival of Sukkot, the homeowner took the worker’s wages in his hand, along with a burden that required three donkeys, one laden with food, one laden with drink, and one laden with types of sweets, and went to the worker’s home. After they ate and drank, the homeowner gave him his wages.
The homeowner said to him, “When you said to me: Give me my wages, and I said: I have no money, why did you not suspect me of trying to avoid paying you?” The worker answered, “Perhaps the opportunity to purchase merchandise inexpensively presented itself, and you purchased it with the money that you owed me, and therefore you had no money available.” The homeowner asked, “And when asked for animals, and I said I had none?” The worker replied, “Perhaps the animals are hired to others.” “When you asked about the land?” He replied, “Perhaps the land is leased to others, and you cannot take the land from the lessees.” The homeowner asked, “And when you asked me to give you produce and I said, ‘I have no produce?’” The worker answered, “Perhaps they are not tithed, and that was why you could not give them to me.” The homeowner asked, “And when I said, ‘I have no cushions or blankets?’” The worker replied, “Perhaps he consecrated all his property to Heaven and thus has nothing available now.” The homeowner said to him, “I swear by the Temple service that it was so. I had no money available at the time because I vowed and consecrated all my property on account of my son, who did not engage in Torah study. Ultimately, the sages dissolved my vows, and I came immediately to repay you. Now the homeowner said: And you, just as you judged favorably, so may God judge you favorably.”
Balak never attempted to meet Israel – to get to know what makes them tick, or how they relate to God. Based on his own pre-suppositions and prejudices, he prayed for their destruction. I cannot find a better story to depict what ails society, today. The misinformation that gets spread about every “other” in society is abominable. Even more horrendous, though, is the realty that people but into it, own it, and proffer it as gospel. We learn that we have a faith-based obligation to judge each other favorably and to learn with them, not about them. The conversations that follow will only serve to help us learn and grow – and grow in empathy.