Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.

Korach: Collective Responsibility

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה

“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, “God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?”   (Numbers 16:21)

The issue of Collective Punishment remains with us as a modern problem and it is no surprise that rabbinic tradition builds arguments to try to dissect and clarify the issues. Call up the question on a search engine and the chances are you will find emotive responses citing the biblical verses of the children paying for the sins of the father – for example Deut. 5:9 “You shall not bow down to nor worship other gods; for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..”. or maybe citing the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – though of course a closer look at such texts shows that they do not in fact suggest collective punishment, and one can equally find biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 24:16: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” Or Jeremiah 31:29-31 “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes–his own teeth will be set on edge” or Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. 

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is in fact a story AGAINST collective punishment – indeed Moses bargains God down from destroying them and destroying the righteous with the wicked, and only when it becomes clear that there are no righteous people at all, beyond Lot and his family (who are warned to leave before the destruction) is the fate of these cities sealed.

 There is no driver towards collective punishment in Judaism – rather the reverse is true in our texts as God is challenged on a number of occasions when it looks like divine punishment will include the innocent alongside the perpetrators – including the verse in our portion. There is no impetus  towards collective punishment but some rabbis – including Maimonides, make the case for collective responsibility, something that becomes enshrined in Jewish Law in the phrase “Col Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (B.Talmud Shevuot 39a) – All Jews are accountable each for the other. In other words, we have a responsibility to each other, and an obligation to make sure that we all behave properly in the world. If not, then we are guilty of passively colluding with behaviour that is immoral, that we leave unchallenged behaviour we know to be wrong. This is, in many ways, the origin of the periodic “Not in my name” protests to Government – we do not want to be passive, nor to have people believe that we accede to what is done by our elected leaders.

The Code of Hammurabi (c1700 BCE) was the first to bring in to a legal framework the requirement that the punishment should fit the crime, and the bible takes much of that moral world view – including the famous phrase of lex talionis “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – treated as meaning there should be proportionate punishment rather than a collective retribution. The Talmud puts it rather more fully in tractate Shabbat 54b “Whoever can prevent his household from committing a sin but does not, is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his household; if he can prevent the people of his city, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of his city; if the whole world, he is responsible [lit seized] for the sins of the whole world.”

 The rabbis who taught this are saying that we have a responsibility to each other, and that this responsibility is on a number of levels of propinquity and possibility. Failing to prevent a wrongdoing is not on the same level as actually committing the act oneself. Not stopping someone with whom we have a relationship is not the same as not stopping someone who is unknown to us and at a distance from us. The word “seized” which I have translated as “responsible” does not imply being something to be tried in a court of law, but is more about having a moral relationship to the action, something between ourselves and God rather than between ourselves and humankind.

 We share a Collective Responsibility – among family bonds or amongst the Jewish people, among fellow citizens under shared government, or as human beings who have stewardship of the world.  Jewish teaching is clear that we are not isolated from each other: To use the words of John Donne “All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all:….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

 The text of this parashah rings clearly as a bell for us: “And they fell on their faces and said, God, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation?” 16:21. Collective punishment is not acceptable in any circumstance, but collective responsibility is something for us all to take note of, and to do.