We are in troubling times in our country right now: preventable shootings within our borders and breaking up of families on our borders. In our parsha we have the story of Balak the king and Balaam the sorcerer going back and forth because Balak wants Balaam to cure the Jewish people as they travel through the desert. Balaam eventually agrees to go, but tells Balak he can only say what God tells him to say. In somewhat naive fashion Balak agrees to have Balaam come but instead of getting a curse from Balaam he gets a blessing. Balaam’s blessing has become rather famous, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov… – How beautiful are your tents oh Jacob…”
So Balaam is standing up on a mountain looking out over the Israelite camp and blesses the people. The commentators ask, what did Balaam see that demonstrated the people’s worthiness to receive this blessing? I would say, what could he see? Traditionally the rabbis tell us that Balaam saw all the tents open towards one another. This was a demonstration of openness and the welcoming of guests. I don’t believe Balaam would have been able to see much more than the arrangement of the tents from where he was standing. He certainly couldn’t look into the tents from up where he was. I would like to think that Balaam also saw good things happening amongst people outside the tents. If Balaam did see cooperation, kindness, and people helping one another outside the home, then his blessing of the tents would be appropriate based on the concept of integrity. This is the idea that the outside and inside should be reflections of one another. Would this be a fair assumption to make? For example, if you were to see up close a group of seemingly stable homes in which members of the household are well provided for and respect one another, could you make assumptions about how the community operates? Now generally it is not a good idea to make assumptions about that which we can’t see, and in life there are no guarantees (in fact human history has shown that sometimes a group of seemingly stable homes can be surprisingly unkind to each other and especially to the stranger). However, I still would like to think that offering a blessing with the expectation of integrity is right more often than it is wrong. We are taught to treat everyone as we would treat ourselves and our families. A synagogue for example, wants to be seen as equally kind and caring towards those who walk within its walls as it is with those who roam outside in the lager community.
I said at the outset, that our country is in trouble and it is because values are being tossed aside within our country and on and beyond our boards. Within our country the proliferation of guns is leading to senseless death and the inevitable separation of parents and children. The man who killed five people at the Capital Gazette simply should not have been allowed to purchase a gun. Meanwhile our conduct towards those families at our borders seems to reflect the same lack of care about basic human rights. This is not the kind of continuity I want for our country. Now immigration and gun legislation are separate issues, and perhaps I am being a but overly-simplistic in an effort to accentuate a point, but in both cases if one were to be looking down on this country from a hill top I think he/she would see a travesty (the abdication of an ethical responsibility to protect people, especially children and families), happening both within and beyond our borders. Our reality should not reflect this kind of continuity.
To bring about change we must address the issues directly, but we cannot miss the values that are being cast aside every day as our responses to these atrocities are failing to prevent or solve each crisis. Our community social action committee is always looking for people who want to take action, and those who currently sit on the committee do have resources for individuals who want to do something to address the troubles within, on, and beyond our borders. This synagogue can be a home base for those who want to take action on causes that serve to better protect the basic human rights of all people everywhere.
“We must believe not only that all people are created equal, but also that all peoples are created equal.” (Natan Sharansky).
Let us come together on Shabbat to gather strength and guidance from one another and go out after Shabbat ready to work even harder to change the world for the better.
Rabbi Daniel Victor
Reb Victor has been the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El since 2015. He received his rabbinic ordination and a Master’s in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.