Balak: the lies of leaders are a danger to us all; or “the tendency to fake news is all ours”

 

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent [the agreement]: when God has said, will God not do it? Or when God has spoken, will God not make it good?

Balaam is speaking to Balak, explaining why he cannot perform the cursing of the people of Israel. He has tried, even though he knew from the outset that this was a professional job that was doomed to failure, but whether it was vanity or a belief he could change God’s mind, or simply the money was so good he thought it worth the shot – in this final exchange between Balak the King of Moab and the well-respected gentile prophet whose relationship with God is documented in bible, Balaam has to tell Balak that however many bulls are sacrificed on however many mountain tops, the cursing of the people of Israel is not going to happen. Indeed, after one final attempt following this exchange, Balaam will open his mouth and declare the words “Mah tovu ochalecha Ya’akov” – (how good are your tents” and the blessing of the Israelites that follow them.

It is a well-known story, beautifully crafted with humour and some mystery and growing tension, and a crowning blessing. But it is the phrase that Balaam tells Balak that stuck out for me this year – God is not a human being who would tell lies, not a human being who goes back on their word, but God speaks and it will happen, God says and it will be established.

Lo Ish El, vi’chazeiv – “God is not a man, a teller of lies. God is not Someone who says they will do something and then go back on their word”. And it struck me just how powerful these words are, when spoken to a political leader.  For by implication at least, Balaam is speaking truth to power and pointing out to Balak that he, the King of Moab, is someone who might lie, offering one thing and doing another.

We are living in a world where our leaders and those in power are doing just that too. Every news broadcast seems to bring yet another story of people who lied in order to manipulate a vote – famously at the referendum for Brexit when many were swayed by the words on a bus chartered by the official campaign to leave: “We send the EU £350 million a week let’s fund our NHS instead” because they understood it to mean that  a vote for Brexit would mean the money sent to the EU would be given to the NHS instead, only to be told later “let’s give” is not a promise, and any monies that MIGHT be given to the NHS would not have to even approximate £350 million. Chris Grayling said that the promised £350 million per week was ‘an aspiration’, not a promise, Nigel Farage also immediately backtracked saying it was “a mistake”. Iain Duncan Smith also backtracked, denying promising the money would be spent on the NHS, saying ‘It is not a promise broken, I never said that through the course of the election, what I said was we will be able to spend the lion’s share of that money’.

Lies are told about migrants – while we know that immigration brings with it the forces that will help an economy thrive, the narrative of the right wing politicians is of displacing native workers, using resources that were not created by them, both taking jobs AND claiming benefits etc. By whipping up fear of “the other”, politicians are able to displace the blame for previous poor decisions on funding hospitals and schools, investing in the future etc. and by such misdirection and distraction keep themselves in power and keep the populace obedient.

Lying is part of the political discourse – the famous saying by the 17th century diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” has aged well. We know that many public servants have learned to cherry pick information to give to their leaders so as not to incur their fury, or ministers hiding difficult decisions by releasing them when people might easily miss them. Famously as the twin towers burned on September 11th, British politicians and their spokespersons thought it a good day to “bury bad news”

We can watch the White House press conferences open-mouthed in horror as obvious and easily checkable lies are promulgated as truths. Just yesterday, Trump announced to a rally “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States.”  Note that “of course”.  He was not challenged; suddenly it appears that the European Union, the project set up after the war to build relationships within Europe, was designed to be an enemy of America.

The examples go on and on sadly. Misinformation, Fake News, Lies, or as the British MP Alan Clark called it “Being economical with the actualite” (when giving evidence in a trial about what he had told Parliament about what was happening) – we are sadly used to those in power having little regard for honesty, truthfulness, or the integrity of doing what they say and saying what they do. While it is not in fact an essential prerequisite for holding power, it has become an ingrained habit in many. Balak too no doubt, whose name means “to lay waste”, whose fear of the Israelites, their large number and what they had done to the Amorites, first consults with the elders and then calls on Balaam to curse the people who are coming towards his land. He will not take no for an answer. He offers wealth and honours, and curiously “v’chol asher tomar elai, e’esse” whatever you say to me [to do] I will do  – something that Balaam will later throw back at him in his words about God quoted at the beginning of this piece.

What can we make of this? Balaam is telling Balak that God does not lead by lying to the people, by misinformation or going back on promises. On the one hand this is a statement of faith in the faithfulness of God – the people and God have a covenant, it is unbreakable and it will continue.

But it is also saying something about people – in particular but not exclusively about leaders. We are so used to being lied to, misinformed or not informed, promised things before an election that mysteriously vanish once the election has been held, told that information in “sensitive” or “confidential” and therefore must be kept from public view; we are becoming used to social media platforms churning out partial truths and television presenters allowing their interviewees to speak unchallenged and unexamined.

Yet the model for leadership is presented here by Balaam is a good one. Not to lie. Not to renege on an agreement.  To do what one has said one will do. To speak and to follow through about what was said.

Jewish tradition has always recognised that for some, leadership is an aspiration in order to enhance the self – to gain wealth or respect or status. It has also always recognised that leadership concentrated in the hands of too few is dangerous – hence the biblical model of the monarchy, the priesthood and the third office- prophet or judge or elder. None has all the power; there are checks and balances built into the system

The Talmud reminds us that “One who is appointed over a community becomes the servant of the community,” (Horayot 10b), the (12th century) tosafot on Mishnah Sanhedrin (7:2) comments “One who is wise, humble and fearful of sin may be made a community leader. There are many such statements in our texts.

Leadership is a position requiring less ego and more humility – look at Moses, leader par excellence, whose leadership alongside that of Aaron and Miriam was marked by doubt and by questioning. Leadership involves not only holding the vision of which direction to go, but building the consensus among the community in order to bring them with.

We have forgotten – or maybe simply let go of – the importance of the qualities of service to the community of those in a leadership role and allowed it to become inflated and self-important, laying waste to communities as it does so. We have too many “Balaks” in positions of power and we are allowing them to increase fake news and lies in the public discourse and destroy the communities so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years. Talmud Yerushalmi has a sobering reminder for us ““As the leader, so the generation; as the generation, so the leader.” (Talmud Yer. Arachin 17a)

 

 

 

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.