Balak - 5778
Yesterday’s news brought word of yet another mass shooting. A disgruntled reader entered the premises of Annapolis’ Capitol Gazette and shot at least seven employees, four of them fatally. The motive for the shooting is presumed to have been the gunman’s outrage at the paper having reported on a criminal harassment case in which he was convicted.
The expression “Kill the messenger” has roots stretching, possibly, to Ancient Greece, when its deployment was not unambiguously metaphorical, and the sentiments it conveys date to at least Biblical times. This is evinced in this week’s parashah (Parashat Balak) in which the sorcerer Balaam, who has been employed by the monarch of the neighboring kingdom to curse the Israelite people encamped on their border.
As Balaam makes his way towards the Israelite encampment, his travels are thrice interrupted when his donkey balks, his progress impeded by an angel with an outstretched sword obstructing the path. On the third of these occasions, as Balaam raises his staff to strike the hapless beast, the donkey magically gains the power of speech and articulates a message that Balaam, himself a prophet, has long intuited but been loathe to admit: God opposes the king’s edict and does not want Balaam to complete the mission he has been assigned.
In the Biblical text, Balaam, faced with an explicit articulation of this messages, bows to the truth and foregoes – or, at least, transforms the nature of – his task. But as we know such a response is far from universal. Far too often, when confronted with a reality that portrays us in a negative light or is at odds with our preconceived views, our response is to attempt to stifle the message or attack its source, admittedly in a less horrific manner than that illustrated by the recent tragedy.
Nevertheless, this week’s Torah portion calls upon us to critically examine our all-but-instinctual response to “bad” news. The prophetic example of Balaam illustrates the value – not only to the person spared our vituperative response, but to ourselves – of being willing and able to take onboard a perspective at odds with our own and to direct our energies to changing the underlying reality, rather than the propagation of the message.
Rabbi Rachel Safman
*** A special note: This Saturday (June 30) at 10 a.m. there will be a rally organized by a coalition of civic and religious leaders from the greater New London area. They will be convening at Williams Park (corner of Broad Street and Williams) in New London to speak out against the separation of families who have crossed into America without documentation seeking asylum. As I expressed in the words I shared last Shabbat, I believe the message of this gathering resonates with fundamental teachings of Torah. As such, I am publicizing this gathering – despite its coincidence with Shabbat. Though I myself will be leading our regular worship service at Crossroads, I encourage all Beth El members who are so-moved to attend the rally. This accords with the teachings of the luminary Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who in the era of the civil rights protests chose on specific occasions to “pray with his feet,” participating in actions that embody Torah in place of liturgical worship. ***