Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass (1636 painting by Bartholomeus Breenbergh). cc: wikipedia
This world is filled with lawyers who can help us find a way to do an end run around the spirit of the law, even as we observe the letter of the law. Rabbi Arik Ascherman connects the social current affairs and out parasha and shows us the right direction
Parashat Balak tells how the Moabite king Balak is afraid of the Israelites and wants Balaam to curse them. Balaam says he can only do what God allows. At first God tells him not to go, but after a second entreaty says that Balaam can go, but can only say what God tells him to say. God sends an angel to block his way, and we have the famous story of Balaam’s talking ass. When Balaam arrives, Balak is furious because seven different times Balaam blesses the Israelites. Some of his words appear in our daily liturgy, “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob….” (מה טובו אוהליך יעקב, משכנתך ישראל). The parasha concludes when the Moabites/Midianites find another way to fight the Israelites. Their women seduce the Israelite men, induce them to engage in idolatry, and God brings a plague on the people until Pinkhas stabs an Israelite leader while in the act of having sex with a Midianite woman.
In two weeks, we will be told that it was the same Balaam who was seemingly so righteous, refused riches and only said what God told him to, who actually came up with the idea of sending women to seduce the Israelites, “Moses said,”a Yet they are the very ones wh, at the bitting of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against Adonai in the matter of Peor” (Numbers 31;16). The story is disturbing because it plays into misogynistic stereotypes, and we don’t really know how Moses knew that Balaam was involved.
However, if we look at the pshat, the face value of this story, Balaam displays a very human quality. We really want to do something, but we are inhibited for some reason or another. We therefore look for a clever way to do an end run around whatever is keeping us from doing what we want to do, a solution in which we violate the spirit of the law, but not the letter of the law. I don’t know if this is worldwide, but in the U.S., children say that if they have their fingers crossed behind their backs, they don’t have to honor a promise they made. I think it was Levi Eshkol who, when caught having not kept a promise, said “Yes, I promised to do it. But, I didn’t say when I would do it.” When the RHR staff went a month ago to see “Okhlim,” the Khan Theater’s modern rendition of Naboth’s Vineyard, it wasn’t so funny. The story struck home.
When the army closed off the S. Hebron Hills for three days in 2001 and began expelling Palestinians from Susya and other locations, and even demolishing their caves, it would seem that they were violating the March 2000 High Court order which sent 700 men, women and children back to adjacent villages. However, it was only when Jeff Halper and I managed to sneak in to the closed areas and caught the army in the act of harming the cave of one of the specific families that had been an appellant in the previous year’s appeal, that attorney Shlomo Lecker was able to threaten the State with contempt of court.
On July 17th there will be an important Public Housing Day in the Knesset sponsored by our Public Housing Forum (Hebrew). Laws that we have been writing to reverse the dismantling of our public housing system will be submitted by various MK’s. I hope that many of you will attend the committee meetings and conference that will take place that day (Please contact us if you would like to attend 02-6482757). Ran Cohen’s Public Housing Law supposedly fixed many of these problems years ago. But, for over 10 years, a clause in the Economic Arrangement’s law prevents the law from going into effect. This end run around democracy is technically legal.
This week we finally submitted a position paper to the Edmund Levy. (Click here to read in Hebrew) The time for submissions ended in April, and apparently the Commission is already submitting it’s recommendations. So, at this point our submission is more of a symbolic gesture. However, what is the Levy Commission? The current government very badly wants to legalize unauthorized outposts, even if they are built on lands which the government knows to be private Palestinian land. However, they have a few problems. Israel committed itself in the Oslo accords and to the American government not to build settlements, The government’s legal advisor told them that if they did not remove the Ulpana neighborhood people could be dragged before the International Court. So this commission was set up, apparently to find a “Legal” solution that would allow it to take people’s private land against their own will. One of the primary points we made was how Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch warn against the evils that are likely to come about when we use State power to decide the fate of an unrepresented, voiceless and weak minority. We can always find the “legal” justification to do injustice.
Our Haftarah gives the simple answer to the Balaam’s of this world.
Of course, there is almost always a way of crossing our fingers behind our backs. This world is filled with lawyers who can help us find a way to do an end run around the spirit of the law, even as we observe the letter of the law. However, in the Bible, justice and law are synonyms, tzedakha and mishpat. Moreover, the Prophet Micah tells us, that in order to walk humbly with our God, we need to combine law with khessed (loving kindness). Khessed without law is chaos. But, the best laws possible will become a nightmare without khessed. It is khessed that reminds us of that most simple and basic of truths, for law to be just, it must be in the service of human beings, and God’s Image within us.
“It has been told you, O human, what is good,
And what Adonai requires of you.
Only to do justice
And to love goodness (Khessed-loving kindness)
And to walk humbly with your God.”