Balak

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

And Moab said to the elders of Midian: Now will this multitude lick up all that is around us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field." Rashi, referring to the Midrash Tanachuma states, "Whatever the ox licks up there is no blessing in it." The Tosfos Bracha in trying to understand the Midrash refers us to the reality of nature. Generally speaking, animals that graze, while eating the grasses available, nevertheless leave their roots in the soil. Simply, as they nourish themselves they allow a blessing to remain in the ground as the roots can sprout anew providing additional nourishment. The ox, on the other hand, is unable to graze in this fashion. Instead, it rips the grasses from the soil, root and all! In so doing it leaves no blessing in the land, no roots to provide additional nourishment.

This assessment of the Jews by the Moabites rings true as the expression of anti-Semites throughout the ages. It constitutes a major part of anti-Semitic rhetoric. One cannot live with the Jew. He devours everything. His greed, his hunger to control, is insatiable. Worse yet he will never leave even a crumb for someone else to eat. Allow the Jew to "graze," to live among you, and all is lost. And yet in the very passage preceding this one we are presented with somewhat of another view of the Jew. "And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many, and Moab was overcome with dread because of the Children of Israel." Our sages ask, " Why were the Jewish People first referred to as "the people" and then subsequently the "Children of Israel?" The "Vatomer Tzion" responds to this question by stating that HaAm, the people, refers to the simple folk, who at times, because of their great number ("because they were many") felt themselves on an equal footing with Moses and were not always willing to follow his commands. The Children of Israel, however, refers to the more learned and, in consequence, the more scrupulous in adhering to Moses' directives. The Moabites had heard that the Children of Israel were commanded to avoid them and not engage them in war. They therefore feared the Am, the nation, who did not always heed the commands of Moses which were the wishes of G‑d, but did not fear the Children of Israel, who were always scrupulous in their devotion to the Will of G‑d.

Here we have it. The challenge of anti-Semitism. On the one hand the Jew is the scourge of humanity, feeding off everything, leaving nothing for anyone else. On the other hand, the Jew is well known for his commitment to values and principles, willing to sacrifice all for his beliefs. It is this very commitment to principle that allows the anti-Semite to believe he can vanquish the Jew. And so the Moabites, while fearing the Am, the people, nevertheless were confident that they could vanquish B'nai Israel, the Children of Israel. I'm sure you vividly recall the spathe of anti-Semitic activity that plagued the Jewish community of West Rogers Park a number of years ago. Anti-Semitic graffiti on Synagogue buildings and the arson which resulted in the decimation of the former home of the Religious Zionist Movement (Mizrachi-HaPoel HaMizrachi) on Arthur and California, made national headlines. I attended the trials of the Palestinian youths who eventually admitted to the arson. After the sentencing a number of us sat together with the District Attorneys and police involved with the arrest and successful prosecution. I suggested, in the course of conversation, that the Jewish community, the Children of Israel, were perhaps the only law abiding community in Chicago.

When questioned regarding the basis for my statement I pointed out that in spite of the fact that the guilty parties lived in the heart of Jewish West Rogers Park, in spite of the fact that they were Palestinian Muslims, neither their families nor the Muslim community had any real concern that the Jewish community would mount a violent retaliation through its "gangs." After all, it is a given in urban life, that every ethnicity has its gangs; gangs that can and will respond brutally to protect their territory and their community. Indeed gangs are so much a part of today's society that at repeated meetings of the North Side Task Force of the Human Relations Commission during that period of time, I found it almost impossible to convince those in attendance that the Jewish community has no organized gangs. Worse yet, those who served on the Task Force, its very purpose to bring harmony and peace to the community, seemed to paradoxically think less of the Jewish community because it did not use the all pervasive vehicle of the gang to teach the Palestinians a lesson. I bemoaned the fact that behind closed doors many were saying that the Jews should have retaliated and that lack of retaliation somehow opened us up for more misery and pain. The attorneys and police present understood what I had meant. Their experience in law enforcement, their familiarity with the violence that so strangles our society, drew them to the same conclusion. The Jewish People have for centuries been torn between being merely an Am, a people like any other, or B'nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. The tension in this conflict is manifest in the story of the Moabites.

Living by principle, by G‑d ordained directives, the Children of Israel, while on the one hand exemplars of all that is noble in the human experience, oft times are instead viewed by others as mere fools, even to the point of seemingly creating an atmosphere in which others feel confident in attacking them. Yet it is the Divine Mission of the Jewish People to rise above the mere status of Am, a non-descript people like all others, and become B'nai Israel, the Children of Israel; that People who, in spite of all that befalls them, live by the Divine principles that mold humanity into that special creation created "in the image of G‑d." Painful though it has been, the Jewish journey through history is marked by the values and principles our People have been able to exemplify and promulgate among the nations. It is these very values and principles that supply the life-giving water of hope for all humanity. There are times when this unusual challenge to our People becomes too heavy to bear. Watching the anti-Semites at work, manipulating us by use of the very principles and values that guide us, that are the foundation of our very existence, is frustrating. Yet through the centuries our People have survived because they have elected to be the B'nai Israel, the Children of Israel, ever spreading the message of a more beautiful world created through the dignity and worth afforded humankind through a commitment to the word of G‑d.