Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Balak

And the world changed. In just two weeks, the world changed. We started with the mandate that will most likely remove the supposed “Confederate Flag” from public government display (and from private sale across the country). Then, the United States Supreme Court struck down the ban on gay marriage, political gerrymandering, and an EPA mandate on mercury and toxin emissions. The Court affirmed universal healthcare (while allowing certain religious groups an exception from the mandate), a broad definition of the word “Discrimination” in housing, the rights of churches to advertise, the privacy rights of hotel guest lists against police search, and the death penalty in Oklahoma. The Court protected abortion rights (two cases), and took under review a case calling for the end of affirmative action. Wow! Obviously, agree or disagree, the legal and moral landscape of this country is definitely changing.

This week the United Church of Christ voted to condemn Israel for its alleged abuses, without mention of the terror thrown against Israel by all of its neighbors and ignoring the money and resources that Israel still pours into Palestine to curb the abuses that Palestinians suffer at the hands of their own Hamas, Hezbollah, and Fatah based governments.

While these decisions opened the door for change, debate, and conversation, the change, debate, and conversation have not bred remotely civil responses. Quite literally, even while Americans across the country demonstrate solidarity in response to the shootings at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston (and a host of horrific gun violence across the country), African American churches are once again burning across the South. Religious leaders and politicians are attacking the Supreme Court, calling for active protests against the Court’s decisions (some calling for a revolution) … Presidential candidates are spewing platforms that call on Americans to willfully defy the United States Constitution. The Ku Klux Klan is once again parading in bed sheets. All of this, since June 15.

Amidst all of this frenetic activity, we read Parasha Balak this Shabbat. This week’s text hits close to home. We read the story of the Pagan King Balak who loathed the people of Israel. He called on his court prophet Bilaam to condemn Israel, cursing them into destruction. Strenuously warned against working for Israel’s destruction, Bilaam sets out on a journey to curse the people. As he gets to the place of overlook, and sees the encampments, he sees why he was warned. Three times the King commanded the prophet to condemn the people, yet his praise for Israel only grew in strength each time. The text tells us that Israel is blessed and has earned its blessing.

Despite the many episodes of internal rebellion, this episode speaks only of Israel’s strong moral character. All of this said, there is no evidence that Bilaam or Balak were bad people. The King was beloved by his subjects. Bilaam had a relationship with God. However good they were in every other aspect of their lives, they were blind in this one.

It took a near death experience, the intervention of prayer, and being able to experience seeing the people Israel for Bilaam to cut away the prejudice and bigotry from his heart. Despite the witness from God, the King refused to see or learn that which was before his very eyes. So filled with prejudice and hate was he, that he lacked the ability to experience and witness the decency and communal support of which he bore physical witness.
The court clerks refusing to honor the law are good people who believe in God. The dissident religious leaders and politicians believe themselves to be righteous, as well. We are not talking about evil people. The crisis facing this country involves the inability of some to see the beauty in other people or the equal value of the ethics and morals of other good people who believe differently. We are speaking about people who live in such narrow frames of experience that anything outside their own boundaries is so threatening that they feel a visceral need to irrationally respond. I refuse to believe that people are inherently violent, but I absolutely believe that fear of the unknown can make us do horrible things.

I have had the blessing of being with teachers who helped open my eyes past narrow boundaries that belied my real world experiences. I have been with others with whom we attained greater empathy, compassion, and understanding simply because we invested in each other. We never change hearts by castigating each other. I am always moved by how the voices of anti-gay politicians change when they learn of their own child’s identity challenges. I love the epiphany that strikes people when they experience time with people of other cultures of which they knew nothing (or held false information). We need to pray more. Prayer is huge if, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.” I have learned to pray every day. I pray for the day when we can celebrate the experience of diversity with more energy than we currently use to preach it or feel called to run from it. Shabbat Shalom.