Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in 1903, was a forged anti-Semitic text purporting to describe the Jews’ plans to achieve global domination. Conspiracy theories? You bet. Paranoia? Absolutely. Unusual? Not at all.
Accusations of the Jewish People are anything but new. Blame the Jews! In his moving essay entitled Jewish History as a Mixture of the Natural and the Supernatural, Rabbi Leib Kelemen explains that, “In modern times, Israel is ‘The Jew,’ and the world now relates to the Jewish State the way it has always related to individual members of our people. The European Union recently called Israel the ‘greatest threat to world peace on the planet’. Not North Korea, despite its explicit nuclear threats to the West and wholesale export of uranium to Libya et al. Not Russia, who has been providing nuclear technology to Iran and other rogue states. Not Iran or Syria who sponsor terror organizations on three continents. Israel.
“The United Nations General Assembly, a microcosm of mankind, has issued more condemnations of the only democracy in the Middle East than it has against any other nation on the planet. The General Assembly has not yet critiqued Sudan for punishing shoplifters with cross-amputation, China for harvesting organs from political prisoners or Saudi Arabia for banning the practice of any religion besides Islam, but it has devoted 60 percent of its emergency sessions to the purported misdeeds of Israel—including crimes like Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt in 1956 and its recent construction of a fence to keep suicide bombers out of Jewish population centers.”
Disturbing, but to a Torah scholar, not surprising. Over two thousand years ago, Balak of Moab claimed that the Jewish People represented a danger to the entire human race. Cultures would be destroyed and lives would be lost. Men, women, and children would be killed or exiled from their homes all on account of this terrible nation. He called upon Balaam the sorcerer-prophet to curse the Jews, eradicate them from the face of the earth, and purge the international community.
As soon as Balaam the sorcerer arrived at the Moabite capital city, Balak’s words left him convinced. What could be wrong? The elevated mission he had been called upon was obviously a service to the entirety of suffering humanity. The Jewish People were a plague that had to be stopped at any cost. So what if God Himself had told Balaam not to curse His people? Balaam must have figured that maybe God was wrong this time.
Balaam the Hallmark Card
Balaam prepared himself for the great moment. Like a burning glass adjusting to capture the rays of the sun, Balaam concentrated intensely to focus all his formidable internal resources on the destruction of the Jewish People.
Despite God’s earlier refusal to aid in Balaam’s ugly undertaking, Balaam asked King Balak to assist him by providing sacrifices: “Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams.” (Bamidbar-Numbers 23:1)
And when God indeed showed up at Balaam’s sordid request? Balaam’s first words were, “I have prepared the seven altars and brought up a bull and ram on each altar.” (ibid 4)
Appreciate the degradation. Bribing God? Does it get any lower than that? Balaam, selfish little man, projecting his own perverted value system on to the Almighty: since his life revolved around superficial, materialistic things like money and food and honor, Balaam hoped that God could be bought off the same way. Maybe a little honor, a few bulls and rams…
Business is business, right?
Didn’t Balaam see how ridiculous his behavior was? Didn’t he see how stupid he looked? God can’t be paid off! He doesn’t need anything! Heck, we as Jews don’t even pray to give Him honor. He doesn’t need honor. We pray because we need to remind ourselves every day, three times a day, exactly to Whom the honor really belongs. Who runs the show. Who butters our bread, wakes us up in the morning, and makes the flowers grow in springtime.
God doesn’t need mitzvos (commandments). We do. He certainly didn’t need Balaam’s cattle.
But Balaam the sorcerer-prophet, the wise and spiritually sophisticated, the mystical magician of world renowned metaphysical might – completely missed the boat. He thought he could control God. He forgot that God doesn’t need to be controlled. He’s got the whole world in His hands, and that is A-OK. Just the way it should be.
So there’s Balaam behaving like an idiot on the mountaintop when a fabulous idea pops into his addled brain: “Balaam…did not go as every other time toward divinations, but he set his face toward the Wilderness.” (ibid 24:1) Our sages explain that Balaam was so desperate to try to convince God to let him curse Israel that he changed his usual mystical tactics. Balaam turned in an entirely different direction in order to “bring up the sin of the golden calf which they did in the Wilderness” (ibid, Sifsey Chachomim on Rashi).
Ah, Balaam, seemingly the stalwart defender of goodness and justice, beseeching the Almighty to enact justice in a weary world. How nice. Heartwarming, really. Balaam the Hallmark card. But you can see the worms crawling under the skin of the golden orange.
Justice in the Eye of the Beholder
Balaam accused God of injustice, demanding that the Jews be punished for their rebellion against Him. (As though Balaam wasn’t rebelling against His explicit requests at that very moment.) Balaam demanded that the Jews’ mistake, their grave sin against the Almighty, be demanded recompense in full. They deserve destruction, Balaam pleaded. Come on, God – just this once? Pretty please?
Yet there was another well-known instance in the Torah where a human argued with God. Avraham Avinu (Abraham our forefather) was informed by God that the city of Sodom deserved to be destroyed. The heavenly plans had been all drawn up. Sodom was going down.
“Wait!,” cried the righteous Avraham. He begged the Almighty to have patience with Sodom and save them from destruction.
And therein lies the difference between the “justice” of Balaam and the justice of Avraham. Avraham argued in defense of the spiritually indigent whereas Balaam, ignoring the corruption of his very own behavior, argued that the Jews – and the Jews only – be ruthlessly struck down with the most extreme measure of judgment. The idolatrous cultures surrounding him, with their ritualized murder, child sacrifice, rape, torture, and mutilation, could all wait. They conducted themselves this way every day as a way of life. The Jews had only sunken to blatant, open idol worship once and only for a few hours. Nonetheless – justice! Punish the Jews!
But Balaam’s self-centered, foolish sense of “justice” continues to be the ruling order of the day in modern times. Nations ravage each other like sheep to the slaughter and the world watches on with apathy. The world is horrified not by the behavior of tyrants, despots, and murderers but with us, the Jewish People. Just watch the headlines. They speak for themselves.
“Any person who has these three traits is among the disciples of Avraham Avinu, and [anyone who has] three different traits is among the disciples of Balaam the wicked. Those who have a good eye…are the disciples of Avraham… Those who have an evil eye…are the disciples of Balaam…” (Pirkey Avos 5:22)
Objective justice does not exist in the heart of man. Our sense of justice is shaped by our character traits and persona. The justice of a “good eye” demands mercy even for miscreants. The justice of a “bad eye” will, like Balaam, wish the strictest measures to rain down upon the most righteous of all.
We can protest the headlines and tell the world the truth by our own behavior. Being a light unto the nations doesn’t mean wagging a finger. It means setting an example of kindness, mercy, and the kind of “justice” that reflects those values by following the Torah. No need to bribe Anyone.