By Rabbi Josh Weinberg Parshat Balak June 25, 2021 – ט”ו בתמוז תשפ”א
In this week’s parasha we find one of the strangest and most unusual biblical accounts: a foreign king, Balak Ben Tzipor, enlists the services of a foreign divination/sorcerer, Bilaam, to curse the people of Israel. The King of Moab claims that the children of Israel pose a great threat to him because “they are too numerous.” (Numbers 22:6) He believes that only through a curse will they be weakened enough that he will be able to defeat them.
In the end it takes an act of God to send an angel and a talking donkey to change the mind of the sorcerer Bilaam that he offers not a curse but a blessing.
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)
These words of praise are in our daily prayers and known across the Jewish world. It seems, however, that today it is hard for some of our people to express any words of praise for Israel.
If you are a progressive Jew in North America who frequents social media (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter), you are likely to encounter a negative narrative against Israel more akin to Balak who regards Israel as the source of evil and of everything wrong in the world. You are likely to encounter many who compare Israel to totalitarian dictatorships such as China, Russia, and even Iran. You might find yourself in the middle of an environment in which support for Israel is akin to support for colonialism, oppression, White dominance, and racism.
Who would have the courage to offer words of praise for Israel in those spaces?
Who would have the courage to proclaim that Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people – not only has a right to exist but to thrive?
But, on many “progressive” social media sites a person who extols any of Israel’s myriad of virtues should expect a barrage of hate speech and vitriol. –If one posts on social media the experience of swimming in Lake Kinneret or of hiking in the Negev, they are likely to encounter rejection and negativity simply because they highlight something positive in Israel.
This is a new and unique phenomenon.
If I were to post about hiking in Yosemite, or visiting the Grand Canyon, I probably wouldn’t encounter any pushback about America’s immigration policy or about how many children the United States killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is to simply point out the stark double standard unfair treatment directed towards Israel, and yes even towards Jews.
A young person who grew up at a URJ Summer camp and went to Israel on a Reform Movement trip told me: “Talking about Israel is hard for me. I grew up idealizing Israel as a beacon of hope and democracy, but I’m ashamed of how Israel treats Palestinians, and I’m simply ashamed to be associated with Israel.”
When I asked about her feelings towards the United States, especially during the Trump administration, she said that she was, of course, embarrassed by that as well, but it was somehow different than her feelings about Israel. I asked her if she could acknowledge anything positive about Israel. Anything at all?
She mentioned something about its natural beauty and the revival of the Hebrew language, but that “the occupation and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians clouds anything else.”
This this may have been about her lack of nuance or breadth of knowledge of Israel despite her having been there. In addition to that, I believe that this was also an issue of perception. and we all know that truth is, at least in part, perceived reality.
At this moment in time, depending on your social media feed and where you get your news, there is great and unbridled criticism, some fair and a lot not so fair, of Israel. We are seeing a growing phenomenon in which Israel is under attack not for its behavior or policies but for its existence. To criticize Israeli policy is one thing. To question its existence is another – that is antisemitism pure and simple even if unwittingly expressed.
Prof. Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky recently wrote:
“The voices of inflamed Jewish opponents of Israel and Zionism are in turn amplified by a militant progressive superstructure that now has an ideological lock on the discourse in American academia, publishing, media, and the professions that formerly respected American Jewry’s Zionism-accented, peoplehood-centered constructions of Jewish identity.”
“This assault goes far beyond “hugging and wrestling” or “daring to ask hard questions” or giving Israel “tough love.” Our objections to these new attacks are not attempts to dodge the difficult dilemmas we do need to debate regarding peace and war, proportionality and morality, Jewish and democratic values—or occupation, clashing rights, and defensible borders.”
To me, it is clear and obvious that we ought not dodge the challenging questions of proportionality and morality, Jewish and democratic values—or occupation, clashing rights, and defensible borders, and many more. But, we also need to point out the many blessings and virtues and contributions of Israel not only to the Jewish people but to the world.
Thinking back to the story of the sorcerer Bilaam, I would have loved to have been there to witness his last minute audibles. I wonder if he paid any price for blessing Israel rather than cursing her. Did he meet any sort of social repercussions in the sorcerer-for-hire world? Was he excluded from social circles or was his reputation as a sorcerer tarnished from then on? Did he qualify his statement with apologetics or caveats such as this:
“How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! I want to clarify that I know you were a traumatized people after those centuries of slavery, but you could have at the least thrown a few life preservers to the Egyptian army that was drowning in the sea after you marched to freedom.”
Did he say something like this?
“Balak here is worried that you are becoming mighty and powerful. I know you heard that before from Pharaoh, so stop rolling your eyes. Just assure him that you won’t become too powerful. I know you are a Nation that rises up like a Lion when you are threatened, but can’t you just assure everyone that that is simply about doing mitzvot and serving your God and not about being the most powerful animal who “rests not till it has feasted on prey and drunk the blood of the slain.” (Numbers 23:24)
I don’t think he did.
Bilaam’s was a simple message. If I must choose between good or evil, I’m going to say: ‘How Good are your tents…’
Today, we can and should get into the moral and political complexities that Israel confronts. As progressive Zionists, we spend much of our time focusing on the improvements we believe Israel needs to make and on its numerous shortcomings. With that, let us not forget that Bilaam’s praise of Israel was a courageous act in the face of those who wish Israel harm. In today’s reality, we must not shy away from the courage needed to speak praise and say “Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov.” Truth be told, Israel has done far more good for the Jewish people and the world than bad. We progressive Reform Zionists need to work together with our Zionist and Israeli partners to address Israel’s flaws and hold Israel accountable for immoral or improper actions – but also like Bilaam, to stand up proudly and sing Israel’s praise.