I worry about religious triumphalism – that those of various religious groups believe or adhere to the notion that their religion is superior to all others. Such have given rise to religious wars for millennia, and to the Crusades and recently, to religious terrorists. Some have mistakenly argued that the Bible supports such concepts. Simply read that God would destroy Israel’s adversaries, and it is easy to contend that Jews and Judaism are chosen to be the triumphalistic tradition. That is, until one reads this week’s portion.
This week we read a very complex section (Parashat Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9). In short, as the Israelites were trekking in the desert, they neared Moab, whose king feared that the Israelites would destroy them, so he sent emissaries to engage Balaam, a pagan oracle, to curse the Israelites. However, Balaam was skeptical. The Torah indicates that “God came to Balaam and said, ‘What do these people want of you?'” (Numbers 22:a9) After conversing with God, Balaam would end up blessing us instead of cursing us.
What a curveball! It is fascinating that just when the reader is expecting a pagan enemy to curse the Jews, asserting his own religious triumphalism and damning our people, that not only he reverses course, but more importantly, God has a direct communication with the pagan soothsayer! How interesting! God – who spoke face to face with Moses and who called out to Abraham, actually “came to Balaam” and consulted the pagan idol-worshipper! The message to me is that we should be very careful with our sense of entitlement and religious privilege. We may be “The Chosen People,” yet we are not the only people. There are some within the religious world, and even within the Jewish religious world, who ignore and even condemn those of any other tradition other than their own. This seemingly sacred arrogance only leads to the vitriol and violence which has littered the pages of history.
And then we turn to the pages of this week’s Torah portion, and we read that God has a tete-a-tete with the religious opposition! May we be as open-minded as was God!
Rabbi Douglas Kohn