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Bilaam’s Ass and this Presidential Campaign Year

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub
(D’var Torah teaching given Shabbat Balak, July 23, 2016)

This Shabbat we read the story of Bilaam, a brilliant pagan sorcerer who is hired by King Balak of Moab to curse Israel, who Balak loathes and fears. Bilaam rises one morning, saddles his donkey and sets off with a band of Moabite officers on this mission. G-d, however dispatches an angel to stand in the middle of a path and block their way. The ass sees the angel. Her master, Bilaam, does not and strikes the animal three times until the ass miraculously speaks sand reprimands her master. The text then relates, “Vay’gal HaShem et einei Bilaam – G-d Uncovered Bilaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of G-d standing in the road” (Numbers 22:31)

Bilaam apologizes to the angel, who tells the prophet to continue on his mission but only speak words which G-d will put in his mouth. The sorcerer then ascends promontories from which he sees and gloriously blesses the people of Israel, all to the consternation and fury of Balak.
Bilaam’s perception was inferior to that of his beast. He could not see the angel, the messenger of G-d, although the angel stood right before him. How could he be so clueless?
We may find some insight through a famous Midrash found in B’resheet Rabbah 8:5. The Rabbis are discussing Psalm 85, verses 11 and 12, which read
“Mercy and truth fought together
Righteousness and peace combatted each other.
(But, then…) Emet mei’eretz titz’mach – Truth will spring out of the earth.
And righteousness will look down from heaven.”
Rabbi Shimon interprets these verses imaginatively: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create Adam the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, “Let him be created” while others urged “Let him not be created.” Thus it is written “Mercy and truth fought together.” Mercy said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created because he is compounded of falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds.” Peace said “Let him not be created because he is full of strife”
What did G-d do?

He took Truth and cast it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before the Holy One, blessed be He, “Sovereign of the Universe, Why do you despise your seal (that is, Truth)?” So, it is written (in the next verse of the Psalm), “Let Truth spring up from the earth.”
R Shimon is teaching that G-d had to bury Truth in order to create humankind! Our essential make up is too complicated, too torn between generosity and aggression, to understand absolute truth. And social pressures –material competition, prejudice, clichéd thinking – these also conspire to veil the truth.
So, the truth remains underground. The truth is here but it takes our patience, discipline and spiritual sensitivity to unearth it.
In May 1958, in a speech entitled “The role of religion in a free society,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel offered a socio-spiritual observation which has comforted me in this distressing election year.

He said, “The spirit is a still small voice, and the masters of vulgarity use loudspeakers.”
When all around you hear suspicion and prejudice blasted again and again, you can lose faith in the possibility of other realities. You wonder where peace and promise lie. You may even give up on the possibility of finding them.
What to do?

In a foundational ethical teaching in Pirke Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yehoshua ben P’rchaya says, Asei l’cha Rav; uk’nei l’cha chaveir; v’hevei dan et kal adam l’chaf z’chut – Accept a teacher upon yourself; make a friend for yourself; and judge every person favorably (1:6).
Uk’nei l’cha chaveir – Make a friend upon yourself
I understand this not just personally, but ecologically. Make your immediate environment friendly, so that you can retain sanity and a sense of purpose even in dispiriting times. Limit your exposure to negative messages from the screen. Make time for music, meditation, prayer, Shabbat, the company of family and friends who bring hope, a sense of humor, and belief in change even when some social forces are dark.

Asei l’cha Rav – Accept a teacher upon yourself
Study the weekly Torah Portion and other Jewish texts which will help remind you about what is precious and lasting and how we may bring them closer. Find and faithfully attend wise and encouraging secular, political “Rebbes,” periodicals, websites, podcasts, etc. which while not denying the monumental challenges of America today offer sober analyses and remedies for change rooted in cultural openness and a commitment to human dignity.
V’hevei dan et kal adam l’chaf z’chut- And judge every person favorably
Xenophobia is an evil of tremendous power. There is something dark and deep inside us which believes that we can somehow cure our distress by locating it in the Other. This inclination may be as old as humanity itself and we Jews have been its victims.

There is much fear, humiliation and resentment, among black and white, native born and immigrant, the poor and the comfortable. Many of the feelings are justified. But we need not respond with scapegoating and fear mongering.

It is the promise of America and also a Mitzvah, an ethical demand of Judaism to turn back resentment and frustration.

So, apart from nurturing your personal environment, it’s important to find larger groups which inspire imaginative sympathy with others, especially those of different races, ethnicities, classes, etc. These may be our Synagogue Social Justice Committee, which will be organizing a refugee welcome project this year, or Democratic, Republican or Independent groups, or local centers which support the hungry, homeless, jobless, or abused. Commit yourself not to occasional volunteering but to sustained cooperation. All of this will uproot the weeds of hatred, and allow Emet, Truth to spring forth from the earth.

Melania Trump rightly spoke the other night about the values of goal setting, personal discipline, hard work and self-sacrifice.
When people follow those values and achieve materially, we say that they have picked themselves up by their own boot straps. There are also ways to pick yourself up by your bootstraps spiritually. We can say “no” to the loud and ubiquitous forces which encourage us to blame and to despise. We can decide from the outset, and despite the general climate of distrust, that it is possible to form bonds with other people, of different races and backgrounds, bonds which are not ephemeral or tied to self-interest but deep and lasting.
We need to reject what we are told is plausible, what makes us feel safe or justified, and dare to fight for deeper truths, even if these are now mostly hidden.
The Jewish motto, first told to G-d at Sinai, is “Na’a’she v’nishma, we will do and then we will understand.”
The way to faith is paved with daring deeds.

The greatest enemy as always will be despair, despair about the power of goodness, despair about the power of people to change, and despair about our power to love.
As Rabbi Heschel wrote about the late 1950’s, the social disintegration which we see in American today may also be a call, a challenge from G-d, a spiritual opportunity to test our personal integrity and rebuild our society.
Are we willing to meet it?
Shabbat Shalom

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