My Foe is My Friend
Torah Portion: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftarah Portion: Micah 5:6-6:8
"It has been said that if you do not know your enemy nor do you know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle." It has been said that "if you do not know your enemy, but you do know yourself, you will win one out of every two battles." And, it has been said that "if you know both your enemy and you know yourself, you will not be imperiled even in a hundred battles," for then these battles may not be. [i] These wise words of war were written in the 6th century before the Common Era by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in his book, The Art of War, which - one may surmise - must have been nightly reading for Michael Corleone from the movie The Godfather - Part II, as he poignantly summarized Sun Tzu's teaching in the now infamous line: "You should keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer." [ii]
Gradually getting closer and closer to your enemy is exactly what transpires in this Torah portion of Balak. Accompanied by a certain talking donkey (not the one from Shrek), this Torah portion tells of the non-Israelite prophet Bilam's infamous ride from Petorah to the frontier of Moab to curse the people Israel after the King of Moab perceived them as a threat, thereby making Israel his enemy. As the story goes, each time Bilam approached closer and closer to Israel and opened his mouth to curse the people, a blessing issued forth: "Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk'notecha Yisrael / How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5) Enraged, the King of Moab raised his voice to Bilam, saying: "I called you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them three times!" (Numbers 24:10)
How could this be? How could Bilam go from standing against Israel to standing with them? According to the Bible, the divergent forces of Israel and Bilam were brought together by an external pressure: God. As Bilam explained to the King of Moab, "I could not on my own accord do anything good or bad....Only what the Lord says, that I must say!" [iii] In fact, from his testimony, the midrashic sages concluded that Bilam had not really changed at all. He remained an oppositional force to Israel, even as he blessed them, for "it was the Lord who put those words into Bilam's mouth, like a rider who puts a bit into the mouth of a stubborn horse, directing him where he pleases." [iv] For the Lord understood, what Michael Corleone understood, that while we should "keep our friends close, [it is wiser to steer our] enemies even closer."
Why? What purpose does this intimacy serve? The most common answer given to this question is "to gain valuable intelligence," as intimacy fosters a feeling of relative safety whereby our enemies' guard is lowered and thereby we can study and understand them in relation to ourselves with ample opportunity; a response, by the way, which is entirely correct. But, then we make a mistake. All too often, out of fear or frustration, we misuse the insights gained from our enemies to exploit their weaknesses and defend ourselves against their strengths. In other words, we use it to tear down, tear apart and destroy, when - according to Judaism - we should use the intelligence gained in these close-encounters with our enemies to repair, to build and even to grow... together! It's a lesson brilliantly highlighted in the following story from our tradition.
Shimon ben Lakish, better known as Resh Lakish (one of the most prominent sages of the 2nd century) had a questionable past. Abandoned at an early age, some say he became a Roman gladiator. [v] Others profess he was a thief. [vi] In either case, one day - along a narrow road - his threatening presence confronted the famed master sage of the second century C.E., the gentle Rabbi Yochanan.
"My brother, where are you going?" asked Rabbi Yochanan. "To kill or to be killed?" Resh Lakish responded. "What does it matter? Life is fleeting. But in death there is life and glory eternal."
Resh Lakish's response startled Rabbi Yochanan. He sensed something soft behind the tough exterior, a keen intelligence and perhaps even a longing to be loved. "Come, my brother," said Rabbi Yochanan. "There is another way to life eternal." Although hesitant, Resh Lakish too saw something unexpected in Rabbi Yochanan. Rather than fear, he saw in the Torah scholar's eyes a strength and serenity unlike any maintained by even his fiercest opponents.
Though they never stopped opposing one another, in that instance, these two divergent forces on the path of life became intertwined, joining one another in the study of Torah. Every time Rabbi Yochanan would offer up an interpretation, Resh Lakish would challenge him. And, when Resh Lakish would offer up an interpretation, Rabbi Yochanan would challenge him.
Until one day, Resh Lakish died. So grieved was Rabbi Yochanan over the loss of his opposing friend that he could not bring himself to study in the assembly. Other scholars from near and far were brought in to rekindle Rabbi Yochanan's spirit. But, none succeeded.
Finally, Rabbi Yochanan's grief and frustration overcame him. He yelled: "Is there anyone like Resh Lakish?! When I would state a matter, Resh Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, which I would then respond with twenty-four rebuttals, forming a debate that led to further comprehension of our traditions. But all y'all could offer in response was "there is a baraita (a teaching) that supports you."
Thereupon, Rabbi Yochanan burst into tears, rent his garments, and sat on the floor, mourning another loss on top of his foe, who he saw as friend.
"What additional loss?" you may ask. The one that will undoubtedly come to our people without oppositional force. For like the resistance of weight which builds muscle, the muscle of our minds, hearts and souls are similarly strengthened when challenged. Therefore, let us bring hope and strength to Rabbi Yochanan and all our people. Rather than waiting for some external force to bring us together, let us - on our own accord - actively seek out people with whom we don't see eye-to-eye. For, in forming these types of oppositional, yet respectful relationships, we can gain a wider perspective on our world and a deeper appreciation of our place therein. When we bring our enemies close, seeing the foe and friend, then - like Bilam - may all our curses in life become blessings, which issue forth unrestrained.
May You Have a Sabbath of Peace!