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Balak, Bilaam, and the Israelite Refugees

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Massive numbers of people amassed in a temporary encampment. The people of the land feel threatened. They are in dread of the children. The southern border of Arizona? No. This week’s Torah portion, Balak. Here’s how the parsha begins, in Numbers 22:3- “Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. . . and they dreaded the children.” Who is this people who is so numerous and so threatening? It’s us! As the Israelites journey from slavery to freedom, as we wandered in the wilderness seeking refuge, Balak, the king of Moab, became concerned and frightened.

Balak reaches out to Bilaam- the famous guy who rides a talking donkey- and asks Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. “Come,” Balak says, “put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Nu. 22:6) Fear of people gathering on your border is nothing new. I don’t claim to know the solution to our current crisis. Clearly there are many opinions about how to fix our broken immigration system. I do know that the bond between parents and children is holy, and interfering with that bond is, in the words of Rabbi David Stern, president of the CCAR, “traumatic cruelty.”

Rabbi Stern writes in this week’s CCAR blog, “We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation.” He reminds us that “If witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. . . The practice of ripping children from their parents is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom. . . It has been a violation of core Jewish values.”

The Torah reminds us again and again and again of the foundational importance of sensitivity to strangers. It is the most frequently repeated mitzvah in the 5 books, with 36 references. Exodus 23:9 is just one example, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 24:22- “You shall have one law for the stranger and for the citizen.” Exodus 12:49- “One Torah, that is, one law, there shall be for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” Leviticus 19:33-34- “When a stranger dwells in your land, do not oppress him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be like one of your citizens, you should love them like yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I won’t read you all 36 references, but you get the idea.

The Jewish community, not notoriously united, banded together, 27 separate organizations, to call on the administration to desist from separating families who are seeking asylum in the land of the free and the home of the brave, as every one of our ancestors did in generations past.

I may not be an expert on immigration policy, but, as a graduate of the US Army War College, I know something about the definition of a failed state. And there are clearly some failed states in Central America. When governments can no longer perform fundamental functions, most notably keeping its people safe, it has failed. Elvia Diaz, writing in the Arizona Republic this past Saturday (June 23, 2018, p. 15A) asks, “How can anyone possibly justify the halfhearted response of these countries, whose policies pushed the immigrants to risk their lives and end up in cages in a foreign land?” There has been a righteous outcry in our country over the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Ms. Diaz’ words are a critical reminder that we have a responsibility to hold the governments of Central America and Mexico accountable for protecting their own populations, and perhaps supporting them in doing so.

So what can we do to support the refugees in our community? A few suggestions can be found in your Shabbat bulletin- donate gift cards and clothing, send words of encouragement, contribute to the cost of legal services, and, as always, share your thoughts with your elected representatives.

The parsha has a happy ending. Bilaam tries 3 times, from 3 different locations, to curse the Israelite refugees from Egypt. Three times, God intervenes to turn his curses into words of blessing. Balak is so frustrated, that he orders Bilaam to shut up- “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them.” (Numbers 23:25) It’s too late, Bilaam replies. I told you up front that, “I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the Lord’s command.” It is a testimony to the powerful impact of Bilaam, that his words of blessing are incorporated into the siddur as the very first words with which we open our Shabbat morning service, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael- how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

We renew our commitment to hope and pray and work towards the goal of turning the curses in our current national environment into words of blessing and healing.

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