Parashat Balak: To what are we blind?

Parashat Balak: To what are we blind?

Why can’t Bilaam see what even his donkey can see? That question stuns me every time I read this week’s parashah.

To recap, a curser-for-hire named Bilaam is sent on a mission by an enemy of the Jewish people to put a curse on the Israelite people wandering through the wilderness. As he rides along on his donkey towards his mission, his donkey sees an angel in the path that his master does not. When the donkey swerves to avoid the angel, Bilaam strikes the donkey. Finally, the donkey turns around and starts talking to Bilaam, asking him, “What have I done to you?” (Numbers 22:28) It is almost as if Bilaam is willfully blind to the possibilities around him; so focused is he on his path that he can’t see that there might be another way.

I have been thinking for some months about what it means to be willfully blind, especially when it comes to the curse of gun violence in this country. Growing up in suburbia, I was willfully blind to the gun violence that many Americans live with every day. My blinders were ripped off in the most horrendous way when my father was murdered in 1999 – a victim of a criminal with a gun. I could no longer ignore this curse, nor could I ignore my responsibility to act on that realization.

As a society, most of us have been willfully blind to this scourge as well. In moments of terror – after shootings in Tuscon, Colorado, Milwaukee, and most of all, Newtown – our blinders slip off of our eyes long enough for us to express our horror, to pray for the victims, to pass resolutions asking for someone else to solve the problem. These are all valid responses. The problem is that, like Bilaam, our blinders slip back into place after we’ve been kicked or prodded into a moment of seeing the horror. We return to willful blindness, concluding that nothing can be done, that violence is destined to curse us in our schools, in our movie theaters, in our workplaces, in our places of worship.

But there must be another way. Our prophetic tradition calls us to seek that path.

In New Jersey Together, the community organization that our synagogue is a founding member of, we are exploring another path on the issue of gun violence, together with community organizations across the country.

It’s a strategy that begins when we meet with the biggest purchasers of guns in this country – police and military officials, and ask them innocent questions like “what do you do with your old guns?”

The blinders begin to lift when we ask them “Will you use your purchasing power to hold gun manufacturers and retailers accountable to make our streets safer?”

The blinders will be off for good when, God willing, this fall, people of faith join with mayors and police chiefs around the country in meeting with manufacturers and dealers, so we can all commit to doing our part on this issue.

In cooperation with the Jewish Community Relations Council, we are holding an interfaith training on this strategy for those who are committed to the belief that we must do something to end the curse of gun violence in this country. The training will be at the Sikh Temple in Glen Rock on June 25 at 7:30 p.m. Please RSVP to Joy Kurland at 201-820-3946 or to let us know you’ll be with us.

It’s time to take off our blinders. Let’s not wait until the next tragedy.