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This Week: A Chip Off the Old Balak
BALAK, Numbers 22:2-25:9
The phrase "a chip off the same block" usually refers to a person or thing that is made of the same stuff as somebody or something else. Were I to temper this definition with a Jewish accent, informed by this week's Torah portion, I might suggest a new phrase: "a chip off the same Balak."
Though prima facie, the main player is the prophet, Bilaam, the tradition has named the parashah, Balak. It must be that Bilaam, himself, was a chip off the same Balak.
When the czarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" writes that Jews are committed to "worldwide domination," that accusation is a chip off the same Balak. When the eminent British historian Arnold Toynbee described Jews as a "fossilized relic of an ancient past," that invective is a chip off the same Balak. When Amiri Baraka writes a poem post-Sept. 11 suggesting that Israelis had advance warning of this heinous and despicable attack, he, too, was a chip off the same Balak.
When Dr. Muhammad Mahatir, former prime minister of Malaysia, said at a worldwide conference that the Jews "control the world by proxy," he, too, was another chip. And as I write these words, when an Associated Press report suggests the Israelis had an "advance warning" about last week's London bombings (where have we heard that before?), that, too, is a chip off the same Balak.
Tents and Houses
Balak was a leader who reasoned that the Jews were worthy of destruction. But he also figured out that they couldn't be destroyed militarily; that was attempted by the Amalekites and Emorites, and it failed. They couldn't be destroyed economically - in the ancient world, that meant, more often than not, the withholding of water; that strategy was invoked by the Edomites and also failed.
There was only one way that Jews could be destroyed, he opined. And that was to go af- ter them by neutralizing their strength; their strength being words and ideas, concepts and values. This is why he conceived and bankrolled the first terrorist in the world - Bilaam, hired to curse the Jews, and reign down on them imprecations and opprobrium.
Why do I call him a terrorist? Because terrorism has an ultimate goal to create an environment of moral and spiritual confusion. Terrorism breeds the epithet of "moral equivalency"; terrorism seeks to make the victim responsible for the reign of terror. Haven't we heard these refrains all too often today?
Bilaam was the first state-sponsored terrorist. He wasn't hired to fire a Scud or a Katushyam, but to confuse and morally neutralize. "You think, Jewish people, that you have the moral high ground. You think that your values - the values that have informed the vast majority of the world - are defensible and superior? I will make you a source of consternation, contempt and curse in the world."
Ultimately confounded in his machination to curse the Jews, Bilaam has no choice but to utter the following words, now uttered by Jews each morning: Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisrael - "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel."
Our sages understand this to be the ultimate locus of our vitality, integrity and élan as a people. Our tents and our dwelling places are our "synagogues and study halls," the ideas, values, concepts and thoughts of our people. This is our strength. The beit knesset is our bulwark, the beit midrash our bastion.
There is one sure way to beat the anti-Semites, and that's for us to become the most literate, proud and active "Semites" we can become. As a community, we are rich in synagogues and study halls. When you enter them, you and we as a people will be blessed.
Rabbi Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.