The deadline approaches and I must turn to the keyboard to write. I must write even though my heart is so heavy, so burdened with sadness and confusion, pain and frustration. And I’m supposed to find something in the thousands of words in this week’s Parasha, Balak, that is relevant and meaningful.
But I can’t find meaning in this last week’s events. Three teenage boys, Eyal Yifrach, 19; Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer, both 16, were put in their graves, while their parents had to watch and weep. ( To read Alden Solovy’s beautiful prayer of healing and mourning http://tobendlight.com/2014/07/01/they-were-boys-a-yizkor-prayer/)
There is no sorrow deeper than that of a parent burying a child, especially (can one use that word?) one that has been murdered. Immediately, there were calls on my Facebook page and in my inbox for revenge, words to the effect “we’ll pay them back, and make them think twice about ever attacking us again”, and even the Head of State was quoted as saying, “Hamas will pay dearly for this”, regardless of the fact that no proof had been established that Hamas was responsible. There still is no proof.
And now, another teenage boy is dead, this time a 16 year old Palestinian boy named Mohammed Abu Khudair. It is still being investigated as to the circumstances of his death, but at first glance, it seems to be a revenge killing. He was dragged into a car and taken away. Ultra-right Jewish nationalists went on a rampage Tuesday night, coinciding with the funerals, even though the boys’ parents themselves were pleading for restraint. The situation is still volatile, with news reports coming throughout each day.
And more are dead, and more will die, and more mothers will bury their sons.
And Balak? What could Balak possibly have to teach us this week? Some background to the story: this is an instance of God talking to a non-Israelite prophet. King Balaam of Moab is concerned that the Israelites are growing too numerous, and hires well-known prophet Balak to curse the people, because he (the King) had heard that the people are remarkably blessed by God. After some goings-on, including a talking donkey, Balak ends up blessing the people, admittedly saying only the words God puts in his mouth. “How fair are your tens, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Num 24:5), among other nice things said.
The tents looked lovely from a distance. From the mountains surrounding the Israelites, the community looked peaceful and united , unaware that the blessings and curses, offerings and machinations are going on around them. If a contemporary Balak were to be tasked with the same job, the tents of Jacob would be portrayed as anything but fair or united. Parts of the community are advocating revenge and hate and violence. Certainly, this is not the way a blessed community acts. Would Balak have had the courage to speak words that came from God – to call out the community for following such a destructive path? What about the courage from within?
Thankfully, to my mind, there are those from within who are advocating restraints. They know that decisions made from grief, anger and pain are never good ones. But how much is the rest of the community listening? Israel may have been unaware that Balak was offering blessings from far away, but we need to be fully aware that curses are imminent if we’re not brave enough to turn away from more killing.
One of the important aspects of the Balak story is that , at this point in Numbers, the Torah is beginning to talk about how the Israelites engage in, and get along with (or don’t) with other nations. The “Other” is taking its place in our story.
Balak teaches us that wisdom can come from the “other”, that wisdom doesn’t only have to come from within our own community, especially when the community is acting in a way that does not bring blessings, but only more curses. We won’t need the “Other” to curse us; we’ll be doing it to ourselves
The memories of the four teenage boys killed should be for blessings, not curses. Otherwise, there is only more killing ahead, more mothers saying mourners’ prayers over their dead sons, and the dwelling places of Israel will be drowning in tears.
Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Mohammed Abu Khudair. Remember them. May these be the last whose lives were ended by intolerance and hate.