D’var Torah for July 19, 2019

This week, we will be reading from Parashat Balak. Moses and the Israelites are on the move. Seeing that the Israelites defeated the Edomites, the Canaanites, the Emorites and the Amorites, the King of the Moabites, Balak summons Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they can win. Balaam goes to see the Israelites forces so he might curse them but an angel of God intervenes and tells Balaam he may go but he can only say what God instructs him to say.
When they come to see the Israelite encampment, Balaam blesses the Israelites. This enrages Balak and he takes Balaam to a different vantage point so that maybe a different view of the Israelites will convince him otherwise. Again, Balaam blesses them. Balak changes their position yet again thinking that another point of view will change Balaam’s mind. At the 3rd place, Balaam says, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Like brooks are they turned, like gardens by the river, like cedars beside the waters the waters flow from God’s buckets. Israel wins against other nations because God brought you out of the land of Egypt to be God’s people. Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.” (Numbers 24:5)
Of all the fascinating parts of this Torah portion, the one that strikes me as the most interesting is that Balak keeps physically moving Balaam so that he may see the Hebrews differently and finally curse them. The results are exactly the opposite of what Balak was hoping for. Rashi explains that Balaam saw a glimpse into Israelite society, how they set up their community and how they cared for one another.
With everything going on in our world today, what we all need to do is to see each other from a different vantage point. How can we understand other people’s struggles and pain if we only see it on a YouTube clip? How can one have an open discussion when many of us limit ourselves to 140 characters on Twitter or share an angry meme on Facebook? The only true way, like Balaam did, is to take the time to take a different look at the people we interact with and people we disagree with. Whatever happened to old adage “To understand a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes.”
I just got back from spending two weeks at Eisner Camp. During the first Limud (education) session, each bunk met with a member of the kitchen staff. We worked with the campers to come up with questions to get to know who was preparing the 3000 meals a day, 7 days a week. At first, the questions the campers asked went along the lines of “What’s you favorite thing to cook at camp?” We steered them towards questions that allowed them to get to know the kitchen staff as people. Amazing things happened. We discovered that the people slaving away in a hot kitchen all day were, computer programmers, mechanical engineers, medical students, entrepreneurs, and many were fluent in multiple languages (one cook from Africa is fluent in 7 languages!) Without getting to know them as human beings, we would simply assume them to be one thing and nothing else.
Balaam saw something special in the Hebrews after observing them and getting to know them. Should we not follow his example?
Shabbat Shalom,
Brad Zicholtz
Director of Congregational Learning