July 20, 2019

Refugees: The Ancient Story of Balak and Balaam

Enraged at Balaam, Balak struck his hands together. “I called you,” Balak said to Balaam, “to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times!”

Numbers, 24:10

The king, Balak, sent Balaam to curse the Israelites, who were amassed at the border of Moab.  King Balak was aware that the Israelites were on the march.  He was also aware that they were capable of crushing their enemies.  Curse them, Balak commanded, and deny them entry into the land.

Now, these Israelites, led by Moses, were the same people who had been wandering in the wilderness without food.  They were the same people in the Bible who received the Ten Commandments (and frequently needed Moses’s reminders to remain steadfast in their commitment to one God).

Though Balaam was inclined to do King Balak’s bidding, he was repeatedly thwarted by God’s interventions.  God “visited” the donkey upon which Balaam rode.  The donkey refused to make progress, stopping in the middle of the road and squeezing  Balaam’s leg up against the sides of buildings.  Balaam beat the donkey and threatened to kill it.  God instructed Balaam to make the trip to the border to see the Israelites but only to utter words God put in Balaam’s mouth.

The words, of the most famous in the Bible: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!”

Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blessed them.  He marveled.  He opened the possibility of wonder and questioning.  At once an exaltation and a request (there are no exclamation or question marks in ancient Hebrew), Balaam’s words conferred praise and humanity on the strangers. The king?  Not happy.

It strikes me, in reading this week’s Torah portion — on which my rabbi, Elaine Zecher, offered her own commentary — is that one of the ingredients missing from King Balak’s worldview is curiosity.  He is afraid of what he does not know. Fear supplants his curiosity. Were he more secure, he might ask: Who are these people?  Why are they encamped at my border?  From whom are they running?  Towards what are they running?  What might I gain by forging an alliance with them or extending them aid?

It seems to me that one of the dividing lines between fascists and everybody else is the ability to ask these sorts of questions, each rooted in curiosity.  The ability to ask open-ended questions is one of the first casualties in the rise of repressive regimes.

Many religions, at their best, require and inspire curiosity rather than blind obedience. Judaism demands such curiosity in the study of sacred texts. What is it to study Torah and Talmud other than a hunger to ask questions and be open to the possibility of multiple answers?  Jewish text study requires creativity. It fosters problem-solving. And because the long tradition of such study includes groups and partners, it also demands community.

These features and qualities are also necessary for participatory democracy. It is worth reminding ourselves this week as the United States refuses to allow refugees to apply for asylum within the boundaries of the nation, that God’s blessing, through Balaam, is essentially a statement of wonder. It begins with the word “how.” How wonderful. An exclamation. Also a question. As in: in how many different ways is this community of strangers wonderful?

Imagine if the American president were to marvel and ask for a few moments: How are these tent communities of refugees wonderful? How might God be blessing them, not just us? How strong are these people? How driven are they?  Why have they traveled so far and so long? What can I do to ease their suffering? How will I and my country be stronger — and blessed — for trying to make their lot better?

An old, old story. An ancient message we seem unable and unwilling to receive.