Parashat Balak: Hatred & Angel Action

For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 21, 2013

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishknotecha Yisrael.

How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel.

These words, which many of us know well, and which are recited every morning by Jews who pray every morning come from this week's Torah portion, Balak. It is a funny little offstage side-story in the Book of Numbers. It is to the Book of Numbers what Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is to Hamlet. Several chapters of intrigues having to do with the Children of Israel, but about which the Children of Israel are completely unaware. The story starts with the hate-filled king of Moab, named Balak, who hires a well known freelance prophet and paranormal hitman named Bil'am to curse the Israelites, who are encamped on Moab's borders.

Balak the king is a simple and predictable character - a monarch who fears attack by a sea of people wandering in the desert. He wants them gone, but fears attacking them physically unless he can first arrange a good wallop metaphysically. But Bil'am, who would deliver said curse, is amore complex figure. Unlike the king, he seems to have scruples, at least some. He is in frequent communication with God, with YHWH, our God, whom he frequently calls by name, something we don't even do.

He announces that he will not do what God commands him not do,  although he keeps veering close. In the end he is brought to a peak overlooking the vast Israelite encampment and instead of a curse, what issues from his mouth is blessing: mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, how goodly are your tents.

The sages over time have been quick to villify Bil'am. I suspect they were uncomfortable with his power to bless, curse and prophesy. His intimacy, as a non-Israelite, with our Israelite Godcould only have felt like an embarrassment to our sages and their belief in our chosenness.

The later mystics see Bil'am a little differently. He is a sort of shadow Moses. They point to one of the last lines of Torah,

וְלֹא־קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה

which means, "there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moshe." They take this to mean that while Moshe has never been duplicated in our camp, he has peers among the other nations. And Bil'am was the Moshe of Moab. But the difference, according to the Berditchever Rebbe, is that Moshe is the channel for kedushah, for holiness. Whereas Bil'am is part of the k'lipah, the husk, the earthiness and everyday-ness that holds and obscures holiness. So maybe Moshe is the favorite because his relationship with the divine is of a higher caliber. Or maybe Moshe is the fave just because he's ours.

But in any event, there's more to this story than Bil'am's character. The tale is full of suspenseful elements. The question of "will he or won't he curse Israel" gets drawn out and re-posed repeatedly. God is a surprisingly lively player in the story, instructing Bil'am every day. But God's messages are a little contradictory - don't go, go, don't go, go. And God's methods are, as always, inexplicable. You can't tell if this is all part of a master plan, or if God is just improvising as it goes.

Meanwhile, there are both fantastical and comedic elements. Delegations run up and back between Balak the king and Bil'am the prophet. In the movie in my head, they're played by the Marx Brothers. Then there's an angel (obviously played by Tilda Swinton) who appears brandishing a sword to block Bil'am's path on his way to deliver what might or might not be a curse. Oh, and there's a talking donkey too, because why not?

I wonder sometimes why this story is so catchy, and why it's even included in Torah. It is one of our few chances to imagine the conversations and machinations of other nations. It captures a universal fear, that there might be people who hate us and plot against us without our even knowing. The story's resolution reassures us that while we have to deal with the hate that hits us head on, there might at least be some divine protection against the hate we don't see coming. Angels bar the path of those who would curse us. A beautiful thought.

In re-reading this parashah, I was caught a little differently this time by this image of angels barring the path. This is because last week, I took a few Ner Shalom teens to Los Angeles for a short Jewish heritage trip. Besides the requisite deli food (eliciting from one teen the observation that he'd never been in a restaurant with so many Jews), we made a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. Besides its careful presentation of the history of the Holocaust, the museum presents examples of hate and intolerance in the world today, and draws attention to creative responses to it.

So one panel in the diorama was on anti-gay violence, focusing on the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming 15 years ago, which brought on the early public appearances of the now-famousKansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. They showed up at Mathew's funeral with their "God Hates Fags" and "Mathew Burns in Hell" signs. Their next visit was during the trial of Mathews torturers and killers, again with the same message that this young man deserved what he got. But this time, in anticipation of their hatemongering and the pain it would cause, friends of Mathew's organized what came to be known as Angel Action. Scores of people dressed as angels, with white robes and 7-foot wingpans, formed an outward-facing perimeter around the God-Hates-Fags people, rendering them invisible and silent; containing the hate before it could harm.

The museum had a photo of this, an image that I'd seen before but forgotten, and I gasped and teared up with the beauty of it, the kedushah, the holiness, that these counter-protestors manifested in response to this very unholy hate.

I was choked up because hate remains as prevalent in our world as ever; and while some hate seems to abate, new victims slide into the "most despised" category. Where does all this hate come from? What part of our heart? Is it nurture or nature? One of the rebbes of Broadway explains it this way:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

And clearly we do this. We teach our hatreds to our children, through what we say and what we don't say; through what makes us laugh and what makes us tense up. Yes we teach it; but why is it so easy to learn? Because we can hate many years before we learn a verse of the Bible to hang the hate on.

So I asked our 16-year old what makes hate so attractive. A couple thoughts came to him right off the bat. One had to do with identity - that people feel a need to belong, to go with the crowd, and attacking those outside the group makes them feel more accepted inside the group.

This idea seemed right to me. Hate plays on very primal tribal instincts. The tribe survives if it can retain control of sufficient resources. Anyone outside the tribe is competition. The division between "us" and "them" must be clear, and moral judgments, "we are good, they are bad,"  or even, "we are human, they are animals," must be overlaid to justify not sharing - or worse. It's all about the group.

In the parashah we have an interesting moment right at the top when it says, "Moab was alarmed because the Israelites were so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites and said, 'Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field'." This speech is not attributed to a single speaker - not a Hitler or a Fred Phelps or an Assad or even Balak. It is the voice of the country, the voice of the Zeitgeist. It is the tribe as a whole calling the other tribe "animal."

And alas, we still do this. Our more complex society, with so many overlapping identities and allegiances and needs, produces a constant scramble for who is the "us" and who is the "them." Until recently, gay people were a popular "them" but we're witnessing the erosion of that hate, at least in many overt ways. But hate is still everywhere. We see the constant attacks on immigrants, attacks made by the very people who rely on them to do the underpaid and undesirable work. Employers have policies against race bias, but a person with a black-sounding name is 50% less likely to get a response on a job application, despite her education and qualifications, because of what her name suggests of her race and her class origins.

Like the angel in the Balak story that is there all the time and only suddenly is it visible, so I have suddenly had my eyes truly opened to the widespread and unquestioned hatred of fat people in America. It is a hatred so deep that no American is happy with their body; they either feel too fat or terrified they will become fat. No meal is eaten without a calorie judgment or an apologetic comment, all of which adds to our idea that the only desirable body is a thin body and being fat is the worst kind of shame. This hatred pervades the culture. With the possible exception of Kathy Bates, we all know that a fat person never appears on the screen except to be the butt of a joke or to represent some undesirable personality trait - greed, cowardice, selfishness. As Ner Shalomer Anna Mollow pointed out in her recent essay, "Sized Up", fat jokes have replaced queer jokes as the hurtful humor that is acceptable in just about any social setting.

"So why else is hating so attractive," I asked our 16-year old. His answer was revealing. He said, "Once you've decided to hate, it's one of the few emotions you can act on without restraint." He pointed to examples from bullying to terrorism, the freedom that comes once you've rejected whatever it is that would otherwise hold you back. And sadly, that sounded true to me as well, and the Westboro Baptist rank and file, people who might have started out as good Christians but ended up picketing funerals seemed to prove it.

So where I've arrived is this: we are hardwired this way. We don't have to be carefully taught to hate. We have to be carefully taught not to. We have to learn to unlearn. We have to learn to apologizefor hate when we discover we've been behind it. After all, if the Exodus Ex-Gay Ministry which, baruch Hashem, closed their doors this week, can apologize for the merciless harm they inflicted on countless LGBTQ people, both directly and by propping up other people's hate, we can apologize for our missteps too.

And we can learn from the the great teachers of non-violence who came before us: learn how to dam the surge of hate without giving it back in kind. Refuse to go along with the fat joke. Or the racist or the anti-Muslim or even the self-hating Jewish joke. Respond to injustice and hate not with more hate but with creativity, with satire and, when we can manage it, with love. That is what takes the wind out of hate's sails.

These skills will be our wings, as we take our place as angels, barring the path, keeping would-be haters from uttering their words of curse. So that instead they (and we) may open our mouths, and find words of kedushah, of holiness, there. So that we can climb to higher ground, view the great expanse and the colorful tents filling it, and say, mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.

You, yes you of the other tribe, how goodly are your tents, your dwelling places.