Shavuot: A new model of relationship where women are (also) in the narrative

We first find the festival in the book of Exodus where it is called called הקציר חג hag ha-katzir “the  festival of harvest” later clarified with the information that the harvest is of “the first-fruits of your labours” (Exodus 23:16). When we meet it in Leviticus (ch23) it has no name but we are told to count seven complete weeks plus one day -fifty days- and then bring a new meal offering and other sacrifices – the first fruits – to God. In the book of Numbers (28:26) we are told it is  “the day of the first-fruits, הבכורים יום when you bring a new meal-offering to the Eternal in your feast of weeks” and in Deuteronomy it is called the festival of Shavuot because of the counting of seven weeks from having put the sickle to the standing grain.

There is nothing in bible about this being the festival of the giving of Torah, the name we use now in our liturgical marking of the festival. Shavuot as we know it is a construction that builds on the ritual of bringing first fruits as sacrifices to the Temple to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, and replaces this with the covenantal relationship we have as a people with God, a relationship which is documented and defined by the giving and receiving of Torah.

So how amazing it is then that this festival which is the bridge par excellence between Temple and Rabbinic Judaism has as one of its major texts the story told in the book of Ruth, one of only two books named for a woman in the whole of Torah, a book which places women and women’s relationships right at the centre of the narrative, as one of them freely accepts all the obligations of Torah to join the Jewish people, and the other acts as her guide and support.

Other women also feature in the book, with strong supporting roles. Orpah, the other sister in law, who chooses to go back to her own people rather than go forward with Ruth and Naomi to an unknown future. The women of Bethlehem who act like a chorus and comment on the situation of Naomi. Even the matriarchs Rachel and Leah and the brave and resourceful Tamar make an extraordinary appearance, when the elders tell Boaz: ‘We are witnesses. The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel….and let your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, of the seed which the Eternal shall give thee of this young woman.’ (Ruth 4:11-12)

As we are modelling a new relationship with God that has moved from the cult of sacrificial worship to a Judaism based on words and actions that aspire to bring us closer to God, the leading figures are the women, and we have two pairs of women – Naomi and Ruth, Rachel and Leah, who have modelled for us an extraordinary generous and compassionate relationship. The sisters had had the misfortune to marry the same man, and therefore be thrown into competition with each other, something that is not referred to in the text before Jacob came along, and we know that Rachel took pity on her older – and less loved -sister Leah by giving her tokens to seduce Jacob. Naomi and Ruth had the misfortune to be widowed and left without masculine support in a patriarchal world, but Ruth’s determination to stay with Naomi and Naomi’s supportive matriarchal abilities meant that all ended well for them both – indeed it is in this book that we find the only time a woman is described as loving another woman – right at the end of the book the women of Bethlehem say that Ruth loves (a.ha.v) Naomi, and Naomi nurses Ruth’s child, an act of extraordinary love and unity. Their relationship is the exact opposite of the parody of mother-in-law / daughter-in-law. It’s true there is no husband/son to fight over but they do not fight over the child/grandchild but instead are both functioning as its mother – indeed the women of Bethlehem say “a child is born to Naomi” rather than to Ruth – the mothering is from both women without problem.

The blessing given when Boaz is to marry Ruth is another extraordinary piece of text. “The Eternal make the woman that is come into your house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel”. There is a clear resonance with the blessing by Jacob of his two grandsons by Joseph (Genesis 48:20) “By you will Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” – itself a blessing of harmonisation, given that Ephraim (the younger) is placed above Manasseh, with no complaint or jealousy shown by the boys, a first in the blessing of sons in the book of Genesis. So again this is a blessing of resolution of any rivalries, a bringing together of two who might fight against each other but instead choose to work together without hostility. Then comes the naming of Rachel and Leah, sisters whose relationship may have been poisoned by the actions of Jacob, each wanting what the other had from him – one wanting love, the other wanting children. Apart from the disruption in their lives caused by Jacob, there is no textual reference to any hostility between them. And here they are credited as being the two who built the house of Israel.  Sarah and Rebecca here are less important as matriarchs – it is the mothers of the twelve tribes who take centre stage as with the tribal configuration Israel becomes less one family and more one people. I am aware that Bilhah and Zilpah are also the mothers of sons of Jacob and are not credited with this – I think because legally they are surrogates, the children not belonging to them, and this is a subject that will be given space in the future.

So here as the denouement of the text, the marriage of the foreign woman Ruth to Boaz a descendant of Tamar and Judah, and the bringing into the house of Naomi (who midrash gives a genealogy that will also lead to Judah and Tamar) means that the house of Boaz will be built like the house of Israel – the Jewish people will grow in numbers and in strength, but also be ready to receive Torah in its life, as Ruth has demonstrated her willing acceptance out in the wilds Moab just as the Israelites demonstrated their acceptance in the wilds of Sinai. There is a harmonisation, a sense of bringing together loose ends and readying for the next stage, and it is all done through the relationship of women with each other, choosing not to try to best each other or outdo each other, but to work together to build for the future.

And what an edifice was built on the foundations of these women. Of Tamar who boldly waylaid Judah in order to have the child that was rightfully hers and that would liberate her from yevamah. Of Rachel and Leah who became the matriarchs of tribal Judaism. Of Naomi who survived the deaths of her husband and sons, who ‘came back empty’ in her own words but who found the way to replenish and rebuild, based on her relationship of love and dvekut with her foreign daughter in law. Of Ruth, whose behaviour would not now pass the test of tzniut in many communities, but who also found a way to replenish and rebuild a life that may otherwise have dwindled into nothing.

The edifice built was ultimately the Davidic line of monarchy as the genealogy at the end of the book tells us.  And this is another ‘wild card’ in the patriarchal narrative we are so used to. For David is the grandchild of a Moabite woman and a descendant of more than one woman who used their bodies and their sexuality to gain what they needed. He is the descendant of men who left Beit Lechem to go to the hated Moab in time of famine and paid for it with their lives. He is the scion of a family with more skeletons in their wardrobe than one can imagine, and at the same time he is the descendant of women who broke the mould of sibling rivalries and patriarchal power plays, who chose to work together, to love each other in the most unlikely circumstances, to help each other unselfishly.

Torah was given to a people who were afraid and trembling, in a desert where they were insecure by a God who was so terrifying that they begged Moses to act as intermediary and agent for them. Sinai is a powerful piece of theatre with smoke and mountains that shook and the sound of a shofar piercing the air. At Shavuot we get a different model – a young woman who willingly and with love stays with an older woman and helps her return to her home, an older woman who willingly and with love guides the younger towards a future that will be blessed with security and warmth. No great theatre, no powerful revelation, just the day to day living of two people helping each other out.

I think the rabbis chose well when this book became the story read to parallel the theophany at Sinai. Here are the women, who were so hidden from view in the Exodus telling of the story. Here are the ordinary and quotidian activities of people caring for each other. Here is a true story of love and of people helping each other to what they need – no fireworks, no drama – just the reality of covenantal relationship in its quiet and extraordinary glory.

 

Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless

Lot, the nephew and heir apparent of Abraham is a man with barely any redeeming features in the biblical account. We meet him first in the genealogies following the flood, when we are told that “Terach begot Avram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begot Lot, and Haran died in the presence of his father Terach in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees.” The fatherless boy is taken into the household of his grandfather, and Terach, Avram and Lot leave Ur to go to Canaan, but settle in Haran, where Terach dies. God speaks to Avram, and he moves on towards Canaan, taking Lot with him. Famine drives them to Egypt where Avram claims that Sarah is not his wife but his sister, and while this saves his life it also puts Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem – until God intervenes and together they all leave Egypt much richer than they had arrived.

The land could not support the flocks and herds of both Avraham and Lot; there is fighting between the herdsmen of the two men, and Abraham suggests that they part company and go in separate directions.  Lot journeys east towards the cities of the plain, Avraham goes to Canaan and again he is promised all the land as far as he can see, to be the eternal possession of his – so far non-existent – descendants.

We hear no more of Lot for a while, instead we witness the births of first Ishmael and then Isaac, and it becomes clear that Lot is no longer the heir apparent – the two households have separated permanently, whatever might have been is no longer a thread in the narrative.

And then comes the cataclysm at Sodom, and Lot’s family are back, centre stage, as we watch with horror the different tragedies unfold.

We get a good, close look at Lot, and we learn too about his family. It is not a pretty sight.

To begin with he parallels his uncle Abraham’s hospitable behaviour. The two messengers of God arrive at Sodom in the evening, and come across Lot sitting at the city gate. It is a significant time as the night is coming, and a significant place in the city where all the communal activity is centred. The implication is that Lot, whose youth was rootless and dependent, is well integrated into the city, either doing business or demonstrating his status in some other way.

Lot is keen to offer his home hospitality and we soon find out why – a mob surrounds his house apparently demanding he hand over his guests for the sexual pleasure of the crowd. Lot goes out not to send the people away but to suggest a compromise – he will not hand over the men who were guests under his roof and his protection, instead he will hand over his two virgin daughters for the use of the crowd. It is at this point the modern reader despairs. While apparently taking his hospitality duties seriously, Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters to the baying crowd. We can only wonder what he learned from the actions of Avram who called Sarah his sister rather than his wife and allowed her to be taken into the pharaoh’s harem in order to protect his own life.

The visitors reach out to Lot, bring him back into the house, and smite the crowd outside with blindness so that they are comically unable to find the doorway, though they kept on trying. Lot is told to find his family and take them out of the city which God will destroy. Lot goes to speak to his sons in law, but they do not take him seriously. He makes no attempt to talk to his daughters.  As dawn rises the angels urge him to go with his wife and two unmarried daughters but inexplicably he lingers, and a merciful God transports them out of the city almost magically, warning him to head for the mountains and not to look back, but Lot prevaricates, saying the mountains are too far away, asking if he can survive in a nearby city, Zoar, and God agrees to protect that city from the coming catastrophe.

The fire and brimstone comes, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah are destroyed, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt, but through the merit of Abraham Lot is saved. He and his daughters are afraid to stay in Zoar, so they leave and go to live in the mountains, where his daughters conclude that no one else is left alive and so they make a plan to sleep with him in order to ‘preserve his seed’. Having got him drunk, first the elder and then the younger daughter sleep with Lot in order to become pregnant by him, and thus bible tells us of the origins of two important – and inimical – peoples, the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Lot comes over as a man who has been given wealth and status but who below that surface is a weak and selfish buffoon, a man of straw. He is interesting to the narrative only through his relationship with his uncle Abraham, a branch of the family tree that might have been important but which now is irrelevant. He is the father of four daughters, none of whom he thought to protect. His  wife deserves our pity – unnamed, unspoken to, she is referred to only in relation to leaving the cataclysm, she isn’t given the message not to look behind them and so she does, with fatal consequences, though I can’t help feeling that there may have been some relief in no longer having to hitch her life to his.

She is a “Netziv melech” a standing monument made out of an easily eroded material. Salt represents value and wealth, it is used to preserve food, it has medicinal qualities, the beautiful crystals reflect light, it speaks to us of the sea and of tears. Salt is the symbol of the covenant (see Lev 2:13, according to Talmud salt from Sodom was burned in temple ritual (Ker 6a) and it is present to this day on the Kiddush table alongside the challah as an echo of that ritual. Lot’s wife escapes the fate of the rest of her family, she is preserved at one with her environment before the descent into degradation that follows.

The younger daughters of Lot do not escape. Bereft of their mother and older sisters, left alone in the mountains with the weak old man who is their father, fearing the world has ended – theirs is a sorry plight.  They have grown up in an emotionally abusive family; their father cared for the superficial success he could enjoy living in his adopted city, working out his own damage of three times losing his own father figures, he did not himself seem to know how to be a good husband or father. He had already offered these daughters for rape by the baying crowd seemingly in the bizarre belief that this was the action of a good host. He must have known the nature of the city he had chosen to make his home and the home of his daughters. His sons in law clearly had no respect for him, he was a weak and laughable figure to them. In a patriarchal world, Lot was no alpha male. Even his name, meaning ‘tightly wrapped’ or ‘covered’, seems to describe a man who draws his blanket around him and hides inside.

With such a father what chance do the girls have?  Yet they seem determined that he will have descendants. Is this a case of Stockholm syndrome whereby the captive will do anything to support and empathise with their captor? Are they actually fearing more for themselves than for their father, whom they describe as old – possibly near to death – and they may be left without any male relative to support and defend them? Will a son born from incest be better than no man at all? Have they believed the story of his superficial success, and refused to look deeper? It is interesting that his wife actually looks mei’acharav – from behind/after him rather than behind her – she is not looking at the city she is fleeing, but instead maybe she is really seeing who her companion in the escape really is and crystallising in horror about both the past and the future, fixing in an eternal present.

The daughters of Lot had not known any man. Their choice to get their father drunk in order to sleep with them is curious – did they think he would refuse them? Did they think he would be easier to control if he was so stupefied he would remember nothing about what happened?  Is it believable that they would choose the actions described in bible, or is it possible that bible is subtly shifting responsibility, making what can only be described as incestuous rape the fault of the young women involved, rather than the responsibility of Lot himself? We already know that he was ready to hand them over for rape in Sodom, have they internalised their use as sexual objects of no real value otherwise? And is there an ambiguity in the statement that “there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth”? The daughters must surely have seen that Zoar was not destroyed, they must have been able to realise that not everyone had died. Are they saying that they are tainted already simply by their relationship to their father. That no man would want them, coming as they do from a city so wicked and a family so weak? Given that they would be unmarriageable in their society, might they at least preserve some kind of descendant who might even remedy their faultlines in some way? Why the use of the word ‘seed’ rather than children? Is this an early intimation of the messianic line which will eventually derive from Ruth the Moabite woman?

The problem with Lot – damaged from childhood, whose name implies that he is tightly wrapped up and thus insensible to the realities of the outside world, who argues over money with his patron and uncle Abraham, who chooses to live among wicked people and be honoured in their society, who does not value his wife or children – the problem with Lot is he is, from the point of view of the bible, family. Somehow the narrative shifts the blame from him again and again, because of the merit of Abraham. He is the progenitor of two of the tribes most hostile to the Israelites, the incest resonant in their names – Moav (from my father) ben Ammi (son of my people). He has distorted the narrative horribly. But bible and midrash choose instead to focus on the faults of his wife who, all unknowing, looks backwards (and midrash ascribes a whole series of unpleasant attributes to her in order to explain her punishment), and to ascribe to his young daughters the rapists charge that they were complicit, that they wanted it, that the drink removes all culpability. It is almost as though the text continues to abuse the daughters, to blame them, to disappear them into only being the objects of sexual exploitation.

There is no more mention of Lot after this episode. He disappears into history drunk, insensible, incestuous, irrelevant. There is no more mention of his daughters – they have served their purpose and they were always irrelevant from the point of view of the narrative.

The individuals have gone, but the systemic abuse goes on. Weak men who crave status and who use their families to win what they want. Superficial signs of wealth with no respect underlying it. Blaming the victims rather than challenging the abusers. Narratives that shift blame, horror hiding in plain sight, the emergence of different groups determined to assert themselves against others.

Lot is the ultimate cautionary tale – of what we could become if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t try to follow the path of Abraham, if we don’t challenge what we see is wrong. And if we allow Lot to sit in the gates, to achieve status in our society, then we risk being his victims, just as surely as his wife and daughters were.

What we can learn from Balak : acceptance of the other is the best strategy for survival

Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9).  From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).

There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention.  For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.

But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.

Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.

The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”

Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.

Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).

And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.

In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”

What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.

His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.

The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time.  When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us.  They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”

Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601).  There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16),  can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently  “to fall upon and kill”  (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)

So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.

In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :

MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”

In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.

So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.

Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”

 (a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008

Balak of Moab who did not know what he did not know

Israel faces a crisis – and yet does not seem to know it. Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the prospect of Israel crossing his land, has seen what they have done to others as they have journeyed towards his land. The Canaanites were entirely destroyed at Hormah (Num 21:3),  then it was the turn of Sichon the King of the Amorites (21;25-26)  who would not let them pass through his land and was defeated and destroyed, and finally Og the King of Bashan (21:35) who also went out to battle against them was utterly ruined. So Balak chose to get some supernatural help, and approached Balaam, a well known prophet the power of whose blessings and curses were legendary.

The sidra focuses entirely on the negotiations between Balaam and Balak, and the consequences of this discussion. What is happening in the Israelite camp is irrelevant – bible is telling us what is happening “offstage” so to speak, a side story that is however hugely important to the Jewish people even today.

Famously, to begin prayer, we take from this sidra the final words of Balaam, which he speaks almost without conscious intent. Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, though he knows that he cannot do this, for God has made clear that the Israelites are special and that the normal rules of blessing and cursing them will not apply. At the end of a long process of attempted curses in order to satisfy the wishes of his paymaster Balak, Balaam blurts out the phrase “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “how good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel” and this statement is taken by us as a blessing, and used as the phrase with which we begin our services – a tradition that was already established by the time the 9th century Babylonian Rav Amram compiled his first siddur and instructed us “”When entering a synagogue say: ‘Mah tovu ohalecha. . . V’ani, b’rov chas’d’cha; I, through your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down reverently at Your holy temple.”

Our liturgy begins deliberately by turning the curse of an enemy into a blessing for us to express our delight in entering a synagogue, confident that God will accept our prayer. The Talmud understands the tents and dwelling places as being the synagogues and houses of study of the Jewish people (Sanhedrin 105b). The Midrash on the other hand, quoted by Rashi (ad loc) (also Baba Batra 60a), sees the phrase as a paean of praise to modesty and privacy: “When Balaam saw that the tents of the Israelites were set up so that the entrance of one did not face the entrance of another, he praised them with the “Ma Tovu”.

Both traditions are teaching that it is the thoughtful behaviour of the Jews, either their respect for each other’s private space and personal modesty, or else the connection to God through prayer and study, that brings about the change in Balaam’s words, transforming attempted curse to fluent blessing. And that may indeed be a good lesson to draw from the story, but I think it is important to see respect for the other not as an end in itself, but as an important way of being.

To take this further: In this sidra the Israelites had no idea that Balak was so nervous of them. They were not intending to destroy Moab (Deut 2:8-9) who were distant relatives, being descended from Lot the nephew of Abraham. So while Balak was terrified of this horde of people who seemed to be destroying the peoples in their path – and was presumably ignorant of the requests for safe passage that were sent by the Israelites but that were not accepted and instead met with hostility and warriors – the people themselves knew nothing of their effect on the other peoples of the land. They see themselves only as innocents, wishing to travel through, to take nothing but what they would genuinely trade or buy from the inhabitants.

So the ignorance of Balak is matched – even dwarfed – by the ignorance of the Israelites, both of the effect they were having on others, and the reputation they were creating for themselves. Their ignorance extended to the machinations of the Moabite King and the professional prophet he hired, and also to the work that God put in to protect the Israelite people travelling through the desert. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, they did not know what they did not know.

While Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, was (unfairly) awarded the Plain English Campaign’s trophy for most obfuscating remark in December 2003 for the words: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. (Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002 at a press briefing at the White House on WMD)  The story of Balak is illuminated for me by his words. The Israelites knew the things they knew – though they did not always respond in the way that that knowledge would lead one to expect. They knew that God was looking out for them and providing for them, but they still rebelled; They also knew some things that they did not know – how to get into the land, when that would be, if they would succeed.  But they simply didn’t know how they were being perceived by the peoples whose land they needed to cross to get to Israel, they didn’t know how their reputation grew to be so fearsome that Balak was desperate for extra help, and they didn’t know that God was quietly active in the background in order to protect them.

What God is doing in this narrative remains, to the Israelites, an “unknown unknown”. Rabbi John Rayner would say that God does not intervene in the world, but that God is active in the world –meaning that God’s will is manifested in the actions of people: the choices by Balak and Balaam in this text, as well as the behaviour of the Israelites, being prime examples. Our daily actions, how we conduct ourselves and how that leads other people perceive us matters; indeed it is the one thing that can transform our world, that is able to transform curses to blessings. We cannot know the totality of the effects our choices have, but I would like to think that modern Jews and Israelites are more aware and perceptive than their ancient forbears about the effects on, and the analyses of, the peoples and lands around them of their actions. It cannot be enough to care for the wellbeing only of other Jews. It cannot be enough to spend our time in study and prayer. Such caring, such study must lead to good and ethical action, to being part of the action of God in the world.

The choices we make in our behaviour matters. How other people see us, even if we are currently unaware of them, or do not notice them, or find ways to sideline them – matters. If we see something as self defence but others see it as aggression – it matters. Even if their construction of events is something we would not recognise, their understanding must be understood and taken seriously and addressed. The bible is clear that God does not intervene in history – the story of the talking donkey shows how the bible views such intervention – but it is equally clear that the choices people make, whether they fully understand the situation or are in apparent ignorance of it, have real effects in the world. It is up to us, as it was to Balaam, to make the choices God would wish us to make, or we may find that the situation is taken out of our hands and we will lose the chance to make good choices and bring the will of God into our world. How then will curses be turned into blessings?

previously published on lbc.ac.uk