Celebrating the American Ideal through the Lens of Parshat Balak
by Jessica K. Shimberg
In 21st Century America, many of us are acutely aware of living at the confluence of multiple identities. We have increasing opportunities to celebrate and proclaim our overlapping identities, due, in large part, to the freedom that has always lived at the core of the American spirit – the America we celebrate each 4th of July with communal activities, parades, and music proclaiming the ideals of liberty and justice for all. These American ideals, coupled with an awareness that our increasingly global existence is enhanced by diversity, are a recipe for abundance and promise. For example, as a woman and as a Jew, I have witnessed a half century of clear and intentional shifts in societal consciousness, hard-won by generations of American women and Jews, as well as other people at the intersectionality of oppression and discriminatory practices. As a result of when and where I was born, I am a beneficiary of the reduction in gender discrimination. In addition, because I was raised in a community where my “Jewishness” often made me different, and occasionally, viewed as suspect or worse, I am keenly aware of the ways in which my difference is now seen as interesting and appreciated.
In this week’s parsha, Balak (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9), we read another in a series of stories of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. Along their journey from slavery in Egypt to the homeland which God promised to show them, the inhabitants of each kingdom through which they travel have varying reactions to the presence of this migrant People. In last week’s Torah reading, Israel sent messengers to the king of the Amorites asking to pass through their land, promising not to “turn off into fields or vineyards,” or to “drink water from wells,” but to cross through the territory along the king’s highway. (Numbers 21:27) However, the Amorites greet the Israelites with animosity, and in the ensuing battle, the Israelites defeat them.
Balak and the Moabites, knowing what happened to the Amorites, begin to make assumptions about the characteristics and motivations of the Israelites out of a posture of fear and ignorance:
וַיָּ֨גָר מוֹאָ֜ב מִפְּנֵ֥י הָעָ֛ם מְאֹ֖ד כִּ֣י רַב־ה֑וּא וַיָּ֣קָץ מוֹאָ֔ב מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מוֹאָ֜ב אֶל־זִקְנֵ֣י מִדְיָ֗ן עַתָּ֞ה יְלַחֲכ֤וּ הַקָּהָל֙ אֶת־כָּל־סְבִ֣יבֹתֵ֔ינוּ כִּלְחֹ֣ךְ הַשּׁ֔וֹר אֵ֖ת יֶ֣רֶק הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּבָלָ֧ק בֶּן־צִפּ֛וֹר מֶ֥לֶךְ לְמוֹאָ֖ב בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽוא׃
Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean everything that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (22:3-4)
This posture of fear and ignorance sounds disturbingly familiar today, so strikingly similar to the latest American policies ~ travel bans on Muslims, dramatic reductions in refugee resettlement, treatment of undocumented students, and marginalization and abuse of migrant farmworkers. The country we celebrate this week for her ideals has begun to turn in fear from the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” whom we once welcomed, and, before that, whom we once were. Our government seeks to silence Lady Liberty, Mother of Exiles, who calls to other nations to send “[t]he wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”* Refugees, our world’s modern-day “Israelites,” fleeing oppression and yearning to breathe free, are now being restricted from entering the United States. Despite the fact that we have far more information about refugees vetted to be resettled in America than the Moabites had about the Israelites, our government leads us in actions that grow like a cancer from the same unfounded fears. We have resources to share and ways in which to ensure abundance, just as they have gifts to share, and yet we are practicing the same narrow-minded ignorance as Balak and the Moabites display in this week’s Torah portion.
In our story of the fearful Moabites, Balak “hires” a sorcerer, Bil’am, to curse the Israelites. However, there is a difference between Bil’am and the modern day “sorcerers” who are being employed to do the bidding of a xenophobic demagogue. Bil’am was clear that he was only able to say the words that the Divine placed into his mouth ~ words of blessing rather than words of curse. Balak offered to pay Bil’am enormous amounts of gold and silver; he tried approaching the matter from various angles; he tried different strategies. And when he didn’t like it that things weren’t going his way, Balak yelled at Bil’am, “tweeting” bullying statements …
It did not end well for Balak and the Moabites, but our American story is still unfolding and our ability to live into our American ideals is not in the hands of a king or a sorcerer. Our potential for compassion, kindness, generosity, and welcome is resident within us and is our heritage as Americans. Our ability to channel blessing from the Sacred Source is far stronger than the fear of those who come to curse. On this 4th of July, may we celebrate the America we aspire to be so that tomorrow and for as long as it takes, we actualize the blessings of liberty and justice for all.
*Words from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty