Parshat Balak 2017
Last week’s parsha marked the transition to the final year of the Israelites’ desert sojourn. 40 years have passed and the nation is still grumbling, even though all those aged 20 and older during the exodus have died. Last week Moshe committed the act that sealed his fate – he struck the rock instead of talking to it to bring forth its water for the people. And today we see further proof that Moshe finds it difficult to deal with attacks on his authority.
In Balak, we see the same types of problems and confrontations and even tactics that we encounter in today’s news. What stands out in sharp relief are the reactions of the leaders of those early days in contrast to today’s followers, I mean leaders.
Let’s begin with Balak and Balaam. Balak, the king of Moab, realizes that he doesn’t have a chance against the Israelite hordes at his gates. Like the Moors descending on Spain, the Israelites are mowing down their enemies in the desert and taking what they want. So he comes up with a plan. Instead of useless physical resistance, he’ll try metaphysical tactics. Let’s curse them. Balaam, allegedly the most potent sorcerer of the day, receives messages from God, our God, and is feared far and wide.
Today, our local enemies know enough to leave us alone, for the most part. They don’t want to tangle with the IDF and for good reason. But our more far-flung enemies, those masking their anti-Semitism as anti-Israel policies, have adopted a Balaam type approach. Delegitimization and isolation by means of BDS, a modern version of Balaam’s curse. BDS has not yet been transformed into a blessing as happened with Balaam’s curse, but we can see that its strength is beginning to wane and soon it may become as counterproductive as Balaam’s efforts to undermine us.
But Balaam proposed a different strategy as well, one that worked much more effectively – and that works just as effectively today. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the leaders realize that the best way to subvert people from what the leaders don’t want them to think, is to give them lots and lots of what the people think they want. Pleasure. Entertainment. Mush for thought. It worked then and it worked for Balaam. In came the dancing girls, and the Moabite women easily led the men by their most sensitive and responsive body part.
This is a tactic that Machiavelli certainly endorsed and it has been used time and again, down to our own times. Right now we are in the early stages of preparations for elections – which will probably be held next year. All the parties are pushing for legislation that will give their people more of what they want. More jobs. More money. More entertainment. More religion. More cannabis. Whatever your party promotes. And we the people eat it up and ask for more.
But where is our leader in this story of the Moabite women? Where is Moshe? We find him in the last paragraph of the parsha seemingly paralyzed and unable to act. Is it because he is still smarting from the punishment he received last week when he hit the rock? Is he afraid to do what he has to – kill the perpetrators as they dance lewdly before the leaders and before God? At that juncture Pinchas jumps in and kills the Israelite man and the Midianite woman.
Wait a minute. Weren’t we talking about the Moabite women? It’s true that the Moabites and the Midianites had joined forces to hire Balaam. But the fact that the ethnic background of the woman is mentioned gives us pause and opens the door to midrash and to the illumination of another aspect of Moshe’s leadership.
As Rabbi Ari Kahn describes it from the midrash, the Israelite man, who we learn next week is called Zimri Ben-Salu, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, asks Moshe: Moish, is it all right for me to dance with this Midianite woman? And Moshe can’t answer. If he says no, Zimri will say – well, YOU go around with a Midianite woman, Zipporah, so why can’t I have fun with a Midianite woman? And if Moshe says yes, then he is abdicating his principles. A lose-lose situation.
This personal dilemma explains Moshe’s silence. He is stymied. He cannot set a double standard – even though it is obvious that being married to a woman (whatever her ethnic origin) is not the same as gallivanting naked and performing lewd acts in front of the elders of the people. The point is that Moshe is always aware of his responsibility to set a good example, to avoid acts that even SEEM to compromise his absolute honesty. There are laws, there are ethics and they will be obeyed.
This week a former prime minister of ours was released from prison, early, after serving time for taking bribes and bending the law to suit his purposes. A few months ago a former president of ours was released from prison, early, after serving time for rape and indecent acts, which he still denies.
The temptations of office have increased tremendously in this country’s almost 70 years of existence as a state. This cannot be ignored. And the people in the driver’s seat today are products of the successes our country has achieved in many areas and endeavors. Add to this the absence of an overriding belief in divine guidance and divine punishment, and we are where we are today.
There will never be another leader like Moshe because there cannot be. But that does not mean we can’t have leaders who make the effort to actually adhere or seem to adhere to the law. That should be the minimum we deserve.