Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
14 Tammuz 5776
Convicted for Convictions
Torah Portion: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftarah Portion: Micah 5:6-6:8
The ISJL Taste of Torah periodically features contributions from members of the ISJL Staff. This week's drash comes from Student Rabbi Robert Friedman, who is serving as our Summer Rabbinic Intern.
In the summer of 1776, 56 men from across the Thirteen Colonies gathered together for a cause they knew to be just. But in their declaration of self-evident truths, they also took upon themselves a great risk, as should their cause fail, they would certainly die. Just before he signed the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin wrote that "we must indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Even though they clearly knew the risks, the passion and devotion they had to their cause gave them the confidence to continue through with their plan. It is this same level of devotion, and a similar risk for death, which we encounter in this week's Torah portion - Parashat Balak.
This week, we focus on the story of the Moabite King Balak. Worried and threatened by the large Israelite community camped near his people, he does what any king would do and hires a sorcerer to curse them. Balak sends messengers to Balaam the Sorcerer and promises to pay him a rich reward of silver and gold for doing so. However, Balaam does not pray to the Moabite gods; he prays to the Hebrew god - Adonai. And as a worshipper of Adonai, Balaam is reluctant to go with Balak until he receives divine permission, but with the condition that he says only the words which Adonai gives to him. When Balaam arrives alongside the Israelite camp, he finds himself unable to offer the curse, for it is not Adonai's desire. Rather, Balaam gives a blessing. Upset, Balak asks him to try for a second time, and another blessing issues from Balaam's mouth. Growing increasingly frustrated, the king asks Balaam for a third time to curse the Israelites. Again, Balaam offers a blessing: the prayer we often open our services with, the words of Mah Tovu.
After this final blessing, Balak can no longer contain his frustration with Balaam. "I called you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times! Back with you at once to your own place! I was going to reward you richly, but Adonai has denied you the reward" (Numbers 24:10-11). Balak does not understand how Balaam could have passed up his offer of silver and gold.
But for Balaam, there is no question. "Balaam replied to Balak, 'But even I told the messengers you sent to me, 'Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to Adonai's command. What Adonai says, that I must say''" (Numbers 24:12-13). For Balaam, God's word trumps everything, even great amounts of money.
While Balaam is not actually promised a "house full of silver and gold", his words do illustrate his commitment. But why exactly is Balaam so devoted to Adonai? After all, isn't Adonai the God of the Israelites, and not the Moabites?
One possibility is that he wasn't actually all that devoted. For many of the medieval rabbinic commentators, Balaam is not viewed favorably and they believe he has corrupt intentions. Rashi, for instance, accuses Balaam of being a prophet-for-hire, concerned only with money. [i]
But Nahmanides offers an alternative view of Balaam. He sees Balaam's actions as acknowledging that "[Adonai] is my God and I am His servant"[ii], a concept not outside the realm of possibility. And such truly seems to be the case.
Why else would Balaam risk so much? When Balaam refuses to do Balak's bidding, he is going against his king. That alone is impressive, but the fact that Balaam stands up to the king not just once, but three times is true devotion. It is incredibly risky. He's actively going against the commands of his king, and he is risking his life. For someone to risk that, he or she must truly be devoted. He or she must be a zealot.
We tend to think of zealotry as a bad thing. We're primed to think of zealots as inherently rigid and intolerant. But that's not the only definition; Martin Luther King was a zealot. Gandhi was a zealot. Zealotry can also be viewed as one having the courage of his or her convictions. It is devotion, or an extreme passion, and one can be zealous about many different things.
For most people, and for much of our lives, we are put in positions in which we compromise. And in most instances, this is fine, even admirable. On many things, zealotry can be a detriment. After all, who actually wants to socialize with the person who cannot compromise on what restaurants they eat at? Compromise is what allows us to move forward and make peace in the face of differing opinions. It is what, in a time of increasingly polarized views, we need to advance our society. But there are also times when compromise is negative, and the commitment to one's convictions is actually better. Balaam could have compromised: "Mah Tovu-How great are your tents O Israel, but may your dwelling places be cramped and drafty!" Fortunately for the Israelites, he remained fully committed to his ideals.
Over the course of our lives, we develop an ethical system, a moral compass. This compass is one of the purposes of having a religion. And as we develop these systems, we often realize that there are certain principles we cannot compromise. These principles are our red lines. And this is what Balaam realized. He realized that his faith, his devotion to Adonai, was a red line he could not cross, not even for a house filled with silver and gold. But what are our red lines? Would we be willing to stand against our king for something? Would we be willing to do it three times? During Shabbat, let us think about these issues; let us consider what we stand for, and why we would gladly be called a zealot.
[i] Rashi commentary on Numbers 22:18
[ii] Nahmanides commentary on Numbers 22:18
Taste of Torah: The Book!
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May you have a Sabbath of peace!
Student Rabbi Robert Friedman
ISJL Summer Rabbinic Intern
Please share this message with family and friends, especially those who do not have access to email, and when your congregation gathers for services I invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. I'd particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, moments of joy, [i.e. births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations] or illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.
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