Parshat Balak: The view from outside
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Parshat Balak: The view from outside

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein is the Rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Rockland County.

Parshat Balak offers us a unique view of the nascent Israelite nation. For the past several weeks we have been visitors inside the Israelite camp as they made their way from Sinai to the Promised Land. There were the complaints of the Israelites about their lack of food and water. We have seen jealousy spur Aaron and Miriam to make accusations against their brother Moses. Civil war threatened to erupt around the question of leadership of the nation. In the middle of their wanderings, a popular revolt arises around the ability to conquer the land and a large number of the Israelites want to return to Egypt. On the whole it is a discouraging picture that has been painted of our ancestors. Now, for the first time in Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, we get a different perspective and a different view of our people.

With all that has happened, it is easy to forget that the dor ha-midbar, the generation of the desert, was a special, unique, holy generation. These were the people who cried out to God from Egyptian slavery. God heard and answered their prayers. They were the beneficiaries of the 10 plagues, they saw the miracle at the Red Sea, and they stood at Sinai. This was a generation that merited Divine salvation. For all their perceived shortcomings, the generation of the desert was lauded by our rabbis as a holy generation who merited Divine reward and Divine punishment. Our tradition tells us that no other generation in our people’s history could match them and no other generation is as meritorious as they.

Perhaps it is to restore that forgotten status that we have the story of Balak and Balaam. While the protagonists of the story are the Moabite king, Balak, and the would-be-curser of Israel, Balaam, the heroes of the story are the people of Israel. Though they are silent and only seen from the outside, the Israelites are recognized as a special and holy community. Three times Balak drags Balaam to view the people from the heights surrounding the Israelites hoping Balaam would see this people as Balak does. Each time Balaam gazes on the people and sees a peaceful camp and a God-inspired people.

Balaam’s blessings reflect the nation he sees from afar. His perspective allows him to view the beauty of the totality of Israel unhindered by the warts those who are within the camp see. One might say that if Balaam could see the Israelites from within the camp, he might not have offered such beautiful blessings. But the opposite is true as well; those within the camp would benefit from being able to step outside and see the big picture.

This week we all step outside the camp and are reminded of the beauty of this people. They were forged into a people in the heat of Egyptian slavery. In their anguish they cried out to God and with hope they followed Moses into the wilderness. Their cries touched God and in turn God touched them. While their journey to nationhood is rough, the fact that they emerged from bondage is miraculous. For once we are urged to look at the big picture and see the beauty of this people.

The lesson of Parshat Balak should not be lost on us. While our generation might not match the piety of the generation of the desert, we face a similar dynamic. Too often we focus on our shortcomings without looking on our beauty.

We know what divides us. We are all too cognizant of our differences and focus on those differences all too often. We will point at each other and claim the differences are flaws and warts. In reality they are not flaws; rather they are part of who we are. We are not diminished by them, so long as we remember we are one people. Stepping back, our differences disappear and as the mosaic of the Jewish people meld together, our strength and beauty is apparent.

Ages ago, a pagan prophet stepped out on a promontory and peered down on the newly formed nation of Israel. His words rang with blessings, and while his perspective could not enlighten the king of Moab, they continue to teach the descendants of those people an important lesson: Our beauty is apparent once we step back and look at ourselves as a whole. We are a beautiful people.

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