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Drash on Balak 2023

Cantor Michel Laloum

Temple Beth Israel

Parashat Balak reminds us of our blessings and curses, our opportunities and our responsibilities, and how hate and fear manifest, leading to carnage and self-destructive behaviour.

This parashah is replete with rich images and even a talking donkey. We find the prophet Balaam tasked by Balak to curse the people of Israel, but instead he speaks words of blessing, some of which have become the key words said each time we enter our synagogue: “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael,” How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, our dwelling places Yisrael.” (Bamidbar 24:5)

The people of Moab looked out over the tents of the Israelites and “became terrified of the people, for they were numerous.” (Bamidbar 22:2) It is interesting how this fear then turns to hate; within the same line of text, the Moabites “became disgusted” and then imposed upon their leader, Balak ,to curse them.

How often in recent years have populist leaders, the world over, reverted to creating fear of the ‘other’ in order to win elections and appear ‘strong’?  Adina Gerver gives an interesting perspective on Balak. She discusses the concept of ‘voice’, and her words resonate in the context of the upcoming referendum in which we will decide about providing a ‘voice’ in Parliament for our First Nations people. Gerver talks about how the story of Balak would have been substantially different without the donkey speaking to Balaam. “Subjugation, in the rabbinic view, is made possible merely by the inability to speak”.

In a democracy, it is essential to demystify the ‘other’, so that disempowered people and minorities can be afforded a voice.  Denying a voice to people keeps power imbalances in place and perpetuates poverty, injustice, disenfranchisement and a lack of access to quality education and health services.  Our voices are like sparks in the universe – if we are voiceless, we cannot gather these sparks and continue our work of Tikkun Olam.

What happens next in our parashah is quite convoluted; Balak is so insistent on getting Balaam to curse the Israelites that he persists, even though it backfires three times as Balaam issues blessings rather than curses.

Balak’s mind becomes so distorted by his animosity, and by his frustration at how the situation is deteriorating, that he is unable to change tack. This all happened a long time ago and yet we see Balak predicament and the fear of the Moab people being replayed again and again through history and even today. This is ‘sin’at chinam’ – unreasoning hatred.

At the risk of being reductionist when examining other conflicts through our recent history, sin’at chanim can be seen as the cause of so much destruction and death. Populists commonly fuel a fear of the ‘other’, celebrating ignorance as some sort of badge of honour. They incite envy and encourage anger to such an extent that rational, reasonable thinking goes out the window, even when the result is self-sabotage.

We can see this in the Ukraine today. Most analysts agree that Russia likely sabotaged the Kakhovka Dam, causing a catastrophic flood in southern Ukraine. Incalculable damage has been caused to agriculture from livestock losses and the loss of irrigation to over half a million hectares of farmland that in 2021 produced four million tonnes of grain and oilseeds. There is environmental damage from flooded sewage plants and septic tanks, as the reservoir was a major source of potable water and hydro-electric power. There is also a risk of nuclear repercussions given the importance of this reservoir to the cooling of the Zaporizhzhia power plant upstream from the dam, and landmines have been dislodged, posing great danger to those downstream.

If, as it seems, this destruction was indeed caused by Russia, it was also self-destructive. It was an act of anger, an attempt to slow the offensive by Ukrainian forces to re-take their territory from Russia, and a reaction to recent military gains by Ukraine. The dam’s destruction will adversely affect fresh water supplies to Russian-held territory, which Russia claims to be protecting from Ukraine. It impacts Russian soldiers and Russia’s ability to counter Ukraine’s offensive.

The destruction of the dam is just one example of sin’at chinam that shows how little we seem to have learned in the intervening centuries since the time of Balak and Balaam.

Parashat Balak offers two ways of approaching the same situation: as a blessing or as a curse.  Each time Balak shows Balaam the Israelites’ camp from a different vantage point, Balaam issues a blessing upon them rather than a curse, presenting them as a new people escaping subjugation for the promise of a new life in a new land.

When imagery of the ‘other’ as something to be feared is invoked, let us choose to see the blessings, and not join with those who would curse out of fear or ignorance.  How embarrassing would it be if we had to wait for a donkey to tell us to stop?

Find more Parashat Hashavua