By Rabbi Linda Holtzman
Balak is a study of openness. When told to curse the Israelites, when his leaders make clear that Israelites are worthy of cursing, Balaam looks at the Israelite people through his own eyes and through the power of God. He sees the Israelites as people, as human beings: complex and kind and caring and challenging and worthy of praise.
The curse cannot leave his mouth because Balaam is now open to God, and the power of God is the power that lets him see the Israelites as real people. And once they are seen as actual human beings, how can he curse them? How can he let himself be party to portraying any people as cursed, as other than fully, powerfully human?
We live in a world that pushes us against openness. The Supreme Court has recently allowed part of a ban of people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Muslims in the United States are frightened that they will be targeted, that they will be treated with violence, that they will not be welcome. For many, this has been happening in their neighborhoods, in their children’s schools and in their mosques.
Yet for us as Jews, we know that this mistreatment of our brothers and sisters is unacceptable. We know what it means to be targeted and mistreated. And it is our responsibility to stand up and see that this does not happen to our Muslim brothers and sisters now.
Balaam looks at the people of Israel and says the words, mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, “How good are your tents, O Jacob,” a prayer that is recited in Jewish communities every morning. Staying open to a people who are seen as the enemy, as worthy of curses, leads Balaam to an appreciation of a people of beauty, to finding blessing where he least expects it.
And Balaam is pushed even further. As Balaam rides his donkey, angels of God surround the donkey pointing spears at him. Only Balaam is unable to see the spears and angels. When the donkey refuses to keep walking, Balaam beats him, and the donkey responds by lying down.
Finally, after much beating, the donkey turns to Balaam and talks, saying, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” Balaam answers, “No.” When God opens Balaam’s eyes, he can suddenly see the angels and the spears and that the donkey has saved his life.
Balaam is opened to see that he does not know everything. In fact, he doesn’t even know as much as his donkey. Balaam has been closed to the full beauty in life, to the rich diversity of life and to the grandeur and power of people he does not truly know. He has been opened by God, but through the most remarkable means, a talking donkey.
Balaam is given a clear message: “Do not assume that you have seen the truth or that you have let yourself know the world and its people as fully as you can, as fully as you must. Even your simple donkey can see more than you can!” It is time for us to learn the same lesson as Balaam.
We will not likely have donkeys that speak to us, but if we stay open to the Muslim community we live with, we can learn without needing magic. There are so many ways to stay open.
When the Board of Rabbis went to various mosques for a Friday midday Muslim service, we learned a little, but it was only a start. When some of us went to the CAIR annual dinner to celebrate Purim in a new way, we learned a little, but it was only a start. And when some of us attended interfaith meals to end the days of Ramadan, we learned a little, but it was not enough.
There is so much more to learn!
We all need to learn from Balaam: to stay open to the wonders of the world and of the people who live in our community, to listen to the power that pushes us to act justly and to take more steps to learn about the Muslim community in our city. Philadelphia is blessed with a thriving Muslim community that is varied and beautiful, and that right now needs our solidarity.
As Jews, we can stand up to combat the Islamophobia that is rampant in our country. Then we will be acting in the spirit of this week’s Torah portion and we will stay open to a community of our brothers and sisters who have been there for us when our own cemeteries have been desecrated. Then we will be seeing that the power of God, the power that moves us toward justice and beauty, will continue to open to us so much more wonder and grandeur in our lives.
May we find ways to connect with the Philadelphia Muslim community, to stand with them when they need us, and to learn from them in every way that we can. All of our lives will be better if we do.
Rabbi Linda Holtzman is the rabbi of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah and is on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.