Sermons

Balak ~ 8 July 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777
Rabbi Shalom Schachter
July 13 2017

While this week’s parashah is titled Balak, it should really be called Bilaam since the story is more about Bilaam than Balak.

Balak was the King of Midian while Bilaam was a prophet, albeit one who was not Jewish.

Balak summons Bilaam to curse the Jews because he was seeking supernatural powers to prevent the Jews from getting to the promised land.

Bilaam, however, states that he can only prophesize the words that God puts in his mouth.

Bilaam’s prophecy includes the famous phrase ma tovu ohalecha Ya’acov mishk’notecha Yisrael – how goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israe—words that we honour by making them the opening of our daily prayers.

The obvious question is how is it possible that there could be a prophet who is not Jewish? What is God doing communing with someone who is not part of the chosen people?

  1. In truth Bilaam is not the only example in our Tanach—our Holy Bible, that indicates that non Jews share in the capacity to be holy in the eyes of God.
  2. Our Torah accepts that Moshe’s non Jewish father-in-law, Yitro was a Kohen—a priest.  We name a parashah after him. Moshe was so impressed with Yitro’s guidance, that not only did Moshe act on it by appointing judges to help him resolve disputes, he asked Yitro to accompany the Jewish people on their journey through the desert.
  3. Moshe promised Yitro

         i.  Teileich imanu v’haya hatov hahu asher yeitiv Ad-nai imanu v’heitivnu lach

         ii.  Come with us and the goodness that God will grant us, we will share with you

4. Another example in our Tanakh of a righteous non Jew was Job. A book is included in Tanakh named after him which recites his story about how God allowed Satan to test his faith.  Notwithstanding all the punishment that Satan imposed on Job, Job’s faith in G-d did not waiver.

Perhaps the most famous example of the proof that the Torah recognizes that there can be non Jewish righteous people is found in the story of Avraham negotiating with God. Avraham hears from God, the Divine intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Avraham had just circumcised himself and his son Yishmael and was then visited by three Angels. One of the Angels told Avraham that he would have a child with Sara and the other two Angels went off to Sodom, one to save Avraham’s nephew Lot and his family and the other to carry our God’s punishment on the two wicked cities. Instead of just being happy for God’s plan to save Lot and his family, Avraham pleads with God to save the two cities. He seeks a withdrawal of the punishment if there are, at first, 50 Tzadikkim, 50 righteous people in the cities and then in traditional commercial bargaining, he pleads to God to save the cities if there were at least ten Tzadikkim.

Clearly Avraham wasn’t contemplating the existence of 50 or at least ten righteous Jews living in those cities. He was contemplating the existence of righteous non Jews. Indeed God was willing to save the entirety of the population of these cities, evil ones and all, dependant on the existence of righteous non-Jews.

How is it possible that non-Jews can have such a holy and lofty relationship with the Divine. Aren’t we the chosen people? Don’t we recite numerous blessings asserting that we are the chosen people, including every time we recite the kiddush on erev Shabbat and holidays and every time we get an aliyah to be called up to the Torah. We are not allowed to make a bracha l’vatala—reciting a blessing that is not accurate. So there must be truth in our statement that God chose us. Indeed on the front wall of the main sanctuary here at Beth Tzedec are the words of the Divine committing to the covenant between us “v’hakimoti et briti beini u’veincha u’vein zar’e’cha l’dorotichem livrit olam and I will uphold the covenant between me and you and with your children for all their generations, an eternal covenant.”

In short how can we continue to assert that we are the chosen people if there are others who also have a direct relationship with the one God?

The problem just exists if we believe we are the only chosen people.

Does God want everyone to be Jewish and if not, does G-d want to have a lesser relationship with people who are not Jewish?

If God wanted everyone to be Jewish, then we would expect our community leaders to encourage our Rabbis and other clergy to actively proselytize—to go out and convert everyone. In fact Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. We turn away people seeking to convert, as Naomi did to her daughter-in-law, Ruth, until we are satisfied that the person seeking to convert is serious in their intent.

Furthermore, we don’t take the view that everyone needs to be Jewish to fulfill their Divine destiny and that anyone not Jewish is somehow lesser in status in relation to the Divine. We don’t take the view that only Jews can enter heaven.

So we can no longer claim, if we ever did, that Jews are the only chosen people. To do so would be to claim that God made a mistake when humans are created or born, who end up not being Jewish. That attitude is the same in terms of how some males treated females, how some Caucasians treated persons of other races and how some straight people treated persons with sexual orientations and identities that differed from theirs. To claim that these ‘others’ are of lower spiritual status would be to view God as creating deficient human beings.

There is a story in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 38a:

Our rabbis taught: Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler Who is beyond all Rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was indeed the ruler in their time and place] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was shaped in the Divine Image, btzelem Elohim in the Image of God and yet not one of them resembles another.

In the same way that human beings differ from one another but all are in the Divine image, so too there are a variety of species of apples, pears and all sorts of fruits and vegetables, plants and trees, each fulfilling the Divine intent. Biodiversity has intrinsic value. Should one species of a plant become infected, its loss does not wipe out the plant altogether. Scientists can learn from the unique qualities of each species to come up with the means to enable the larger plant community to survive and flourish.

The same applies to modern religions. While Judaism has consistently been antagonistic to idolatry, we have always recognized the legitimacy of other monotheistic faiths. While we have been zealous in preserving our unique path to relating with the Divine, we have recognized that there are other paths to the same God. We expect all members of the Jewish community to follow the Jewish path to relating to the Divine and we don’t challenge members of other faith communities to follow their own unique paths to the Divine.

What is changing for us is the beginning of a recognition that we may not be the only chosen people.

What is changing for members of other faiths is the beginning of a recognition that theirs too may not be the only valid path to the Divine.

Most importantly, what is changing for all monotheistic religions is a recognition that we can all learn from one another about Divine intent.

My father of blessed memory, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, compared the various religions to the organs of a body. He writes:

“I believe that Gaia is whole and that every religion is like a vital organ of the planet. You cannot say that Earth can be alive with only the heart or with only the kidneys or with only the guts. It needs to have the whole thing. So if, for instance, I were to say, “We are the liver” okay?  (Everybody wants to be the heart).  If I say, “We are the liver” if we’re going to be a good liver, then the heart will be able to mend, the lungs will be able to renew Christianity or Islam or Buddhism in their own way so that it’ll be a vitally contributory element to the wholeness of the life on this planet, that’s just going to be wonderful.”

We who are Jewish have the responsibility to renew Judaism to do our part in the healing of society. As it states on the front wall of the main sanctuary v’atem ti’h’yu li mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh—You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy people.

Each physical organ contributes to one organic physical whole. Each religion contributes to an organic spiritual whole.

The Toronto Board of Rabbis recognized the value of engaging in interfaith clergy initiatives. I have been appointed by the Toronto Board of Rabbis to be their representative on a number of interfaith groups who work together to try and improve society. I find that we get the attention of governments and business because we are doing this work collaboratively. Advocating as and for Jews alone doesn’t send the strongest message. Advocating along with clergy from other religious communities sends a message to the public that people of faith are overcoming their religious differences and are working together for the public good.

One example of my working with clergy of other faiths for the benefit of society, is for the improvement of legal supports for precarious workers, workers who are part-time or temporary. In relation to my sermon on another parashah, I will get into the details of the protections we are seeking. At this point it is simply worth mentioning that over 150 clergy from other religious faiths have partnered with 26 rabbis in Ontario to jointly sign the Faith Leaders Statement in support of the campaign for $15 and Fairness. I believe that the actions of the faith leaders were a major reason for the strong legislative plans of the Provincial Government.

Quoting my father again, “the only way to get it together, is together”.

If we can now accept that other religions and their leaders have value and deserve respect, then the same applies to all the adherents of that religion. Thus, in addition to treating all other Jews with respect, there is an obligation to treat not only members of other religions but even non believers and atheists and all people who are different from us with respect, dignity and compassion. After all we are all created in the Divine image.

Creation of each human being doesn’t stop with their birth. Creation has enabled human society to advance to the point where medical technology allows us to repair one human being with portions of another.  Whether through blood transfusions, marrow or organ transplants, many of us already are in part a portion of another human being and should be better equipped even physically to appreciate the Divine in the other.

This past Wednesday evening, Beth Tzedec screened the first of its July festival of films. This one was titled To Life! L’Chaim. As an aside, I encourage you to join us for the remaining three Wednesday nights this month, as each film will be thought and emotion provoking.  In L’Chaim, we say how one generation can, in a social way, be the catalyst to the continuation of the community for the next generation.

Following the film, a representative of Renewal spoke. Renewal is a Jewish organization that encourages members of the community to be organ donors to waiting recipients. Renewal’s spokesperson, Shlomo Anhang, shared with us the story of one young Rabbi who heard the call in Judaism, that to save the life of one person is like saving all humanity and thus donated a kidney to a complete stranger.

We have the capacity today, without the need to make these physical donations, to ensure the well being of even this generation, if, we can see the Divine in the other.

Unfortunately today, many of us are still not able to see the divinity in the other.  Even within the Jewish community, there is still an unwillingness by many Orthodox establishments to accept the legitimacy of other forms of Judaism. This past week or so has seen the Government of Israel walk away from an agreement to dedicate a space in the vicinity of the Kotel to egalitarian prayers. There continues to be plans to pass legislation in the Knesset to deny Jewish status to anyone converted by a Bet Din whose members have not been approved by the Chief Rabbinate.

There remain angry or stubborn human beings who claim to be acting on their understanding of the will of God to kill any others who don’t share their specific beliefs. However, the bulk of the victims of their violence are members of their own religious communities.

We have been quick to stand up to denounce violence enacted towards other Jews. We need to be as vigilant and active in denouncing violence against any other human being, no matter what their religion, their country of origin or their race.

Coming back to the parashah, I would like to share with you a comment of Rabbi Frydman-Kohl:

 “The narrative of Bilaam suggests that when we can truly see others, recognize their efforts to live in dignity and understand our common humanity, we can replace fear with faith and apprehension with assistance.”

This ability to see the other has enabled Jews in London to come to the support of Muslims in London when worshippers were attacked by a driver in a van. Here too in Toronto we organized Circles of Peace after the attack on a Mosque in Quebec City. The ability to see the other has enabled Muslims in the U.S. to stand in solidarity with Jewish communities whose cemeteries have been desecrated. This cross-religious support was most appreciated by the religious group under attack.

Balak in our parashah wasn’t the only one in history to want to curse his opponents. Jews have had many experiences being tormented and oppressed by Christians, leading us to curse them. In more recent history, experiencing the Holocaust has led us to curse Germans. Yet for the most part, we Jews have found a way to overcome our hurt with the passage of time, to not only stop cursing them but to actually interact in a constructive manner with them.

We still have not been able to uniformly stop cursing the overall population from whom come the bulk of the attackers against our brethren in Israel or in Jewish communities in Europe or elsewhere in the world.  Members of other faiths have also not been able to refrain from curses and the same applies to non believers and atheists and those who still are uncomfortable with the “other”.

I wish all of us could refrain from the urge to curse.  If however we cannot overcome that urge, may we all be like Bilaam the non Jewish prophet, who when opening up his mouth to curse, ended up only expressing blessings.  May our mouths too express the sentiment – ma tovu ohalecha ya’acov, mishk’notecha yoshvei teiveil – how goodly are your tents Ya’acov, your dwelling places – inhabitants of the planet.

As Rabbi Frydman-Kohl says in this week’s CJN “words give direction to life. Words must lead to deeds.”

May our words be words of blessing and may our words lead to deeds of blessing.  May we recognize that we are all partners with the Divine in perfecting creation—l’takein olam b’malchut shaddai.

Finally may all people of faith recognize that we can come together in words, in deeds and even in prayer in the spirit of the phrase ki veiti veit t’fila l’chol ha’amim—because my house is a house of prayer for all peoples.

Shabbat shalom.