This week the Torah Portion is Parahsat Balak in the Book of Numbers The parashah tells the story of Bilam who was a prophet for hire and was engaged to hurl a mighty prophetic curse against the Israelites by the enemy Balak king of the Moabite tribe. To make a long story short Bilam started out on his mission to create this curse which in the spirit of psychological warfare would intimidate the Israelites camped on the border of Moabite territory. In order to discredit and even mock the prophet Bilam the Torah tells the story about the instance of this hired gun prophet who rides a donkey that actually talks to him protesting the way Bilam treats the animal. At the end of the day the angel of the Eternal confronts Bilam, to the fury and anger of his employer King Balak, and he ends up convincing Bilam to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. Bilal intones, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, Your dwelling places O Israel.” This verse became the standard beginning piece of music and davening in the daily prayerbook. Ultimately the Moabite King Balak’s plan to destroy the children of Israel is foiled and they move on in their journey towards the Promised Land.
The reading from the Prophets, the Haphtarah, comes from the Book of Micah which makes mention of what God did to the Moabites and especially to King Balak That is the connection why the Rabbis chose this portion to compliment the story in the Torah portion this week.
In the poetic language of Micah,God promises the destruction of Israel’s enemies and then accuses the children of Israel and threatens severe punishment for engaging in idol worship and immoral behavior. Finally, at the end of Chapter six of Micah, God gives a hopeful message through Micah saying, “ God has told you O man what is good, and what the Eternal demands of you: but to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with Your God” (6:8).
For many people this famous verse captures the essence of the ethics of religion. Yes, we have a rich heritage of laws and mitzvoth to follow. Yet, this verse sums up a basic mandate in Judaism to practice not only the laws and customs but to be gentle and kindhearted in the way we live out these commandments. In other words this verse teaches us to be a mensch. How does that work for us today given the challenges we see before us in America with race relations and in particular the Confederate flag issue as well as the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage?
As Jews and as Americans we are engaged in contentious issues today that sometimes challenge our patience and our political views as well as basic morality and ethics. Houses of worship burn and terrorism leads to most recently the brutal murder of clergy and parishioners at a house of worship. As far as we have come in race relations we still witness segments of our country who bath themselves in hatred against people of color. Soon we will see the debate in our own state legislature regarding the Confederate Battle Flag flying before the State Capitol in Columbia. Will our elected leaders vote to retain it or lower it and put it away?
This is an issue where religion, politics and justice coalesce. Is this not what Micah was talking about in his adjuring our ancient forbearers to change our attitude in how we treat each other? The time has come to de-commission this flag because it has always been viewed as a code symbol for South Carolinians of color that whites only rule this state. The narrative of the Southern heritage is part of our nation’s past. The problem is that that heritage ignores the heritage of slavery which formed the economic and social backbone of that antebellum world view. Sadly too many of those who cherish that aspect of southern history somehow cannot see past their own ancestors’ view to the African American perspective. Two conflicting narratives exist about what southern was all about. Has the time come to acknowledge how that flag represents a painful reminder of the bondage of African Americans as well? The battle flag of the CSA embodies those two conflicting narratives. Is it not time to affirm mercy and to do good and walk humbly with God?
The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize Gay Marriage in our nation will also challenge our ethics to respect the love that LGBT Americans share and equate it on an equal footing with heterosexual marriage. I am hearing tremendous push back that the fear is that civil authorities
will be forced to sacrifice their religious freedom to comply with this new law. People have the right to believe and to disagree with the court’s opinion. On the other hand if they work for government and cannot carry out their duties then they should seek other employment. The teachings of Micah compel all Americans to stretch psychologically and spiritually to find it in their heart to accept this new reality.
This is a time for the religious community to unite to hold this nation together. What makes us a great nation is how to live with a diverse population of different races, religions and political ideologies. We hear a lot of talk about freedom but does that only apply to people who live and believe as we do? We tend to choose the verses from Scripture that fit our own values but we also struggle to apply those values to people and beliefs different than our own. We could apply this same dilemma of people talking past each other within our own Jewish community in America in relation to ongoing tensions between the branches in Judaism. We read reports of how this struggle for acceptance goes on between Jews of different branches of religious practice in Israel as well. In either of these situations it is a necessary debate.
The prophet Micah warned us that God will punish us for our own transgressions as much as God will punish other peoples who will threaten our national survival. It is a two way street and we cannot have it both ways. In Psalm 85 we read, “
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.
For America to yield its increase can we embrace these prophetic values to be a better more accepting nation which learns how to live with each other and those who do not always fit into the mainstream? Have we as Jews not asked for the same understanding and compassion from our neighbors as do our fellow citizens of color or from the LGBT community ask from us?
Do they deserve less that what we asked for ourselves?