Xenophobia has been around as long as humans have walked the earth; it probably existed among earlier homo sapiens. It seems that whenever we create an “us” we have automatically designated a “them.” Israel escaped the clutches of a Pharaoh who saw only “us” and “them”:
וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:8-9)
Now, nearing the end of their 40-year trek through the Wilderness, passing through Moab on their way to Eretz Yisrael, the Israelites encounter yet another king cut in the same cloth: Balak, son of Tzippor, king of Moab:
וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד--כִּי רַב-הוּא; וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל-זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן, עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת-כָּל-סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ, כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר, אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה; וּבָלָקבֶּן-צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ לְמוֹאָב, בָּעֵת הַהִוא.
Moab was afraid because that people was so numerous Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:3-4)
How remarkable that either Pharaoh or Balak would fear this disheveled band of former slaves. Fear is often expressed at hatred. That is the case with both Pharaoh, who responds by enslaving the Hebrew, and with Balak, who responds by seeking the services of the prophet Balaam to curse Israel.
Torah never abides in a vacuum. It is a living, breathing document off which we bounce the events and challenges of our lives. An explication of this week’s parashah, Balak, demonstrates this. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned three times in the late 18th century, ultimately wiping out a sovereign Polish nation for 123 years, by the Russian Empire, the King of Prussia, and Hapsburg Austria. The first partition, in August 1772, brought an enormous number of Jews into the Russian Empire. The second partition, in January 1793, included the town of Berditchev, where Rabbi Levi Yitzhak lived and taught. How to absorb “hordes” of Jews proved a dilemma for Russia as much as an impossibility for Balak. Russia feared their numbers and influence, not to mention “Judaizing,” a term deriving from the Christian New Testament that connotes the fear that (in this case, Orthodox Russians) would be drawn to Jewish ways and perhaps convert to Judaism. To us in the 21st century this may seem absurd, but it was a real and potent fear in the 18th century: Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in 1791 following the failures of her predecessors to expel Jews entirely from Russia, unless they converted to Russian Orthodoxy.
In this environment, through the lens of the historical situation and exigencies of life, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev reads Balak. He notices that in Numbers 22:3, cited above, Israel is referred to first as “the people” and subsequently as “the Israelites.” Here is the verse again:
וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד--כִּי רַב-הוּא; וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Moab was afraid because that people was so numerous Moab dreaded the Israelites… (Numbers 22:3)
Levi Yitzhak, in Kedushat Levi notes that Midrash Exodush Rabbah 42:6 and the Zohar 2:45b explain the use of the terms by telling us that am (“people”) refers to the erev rav (“mixed multitude”) that left Egypt with Moses. Torah tells us that other people attached themselves to the Jewish nation and escaped Egypt along with the Hebrews. The text itself, Levi Yitzhak, hints at why Moab feared the Israelites: the term וַיָּגָר (“feared” pronounced va-yagar) sounds very much like the term גרים (geirim, “proselytes”). Balak was afraid his own people would convert and join the Jewish people, and thus he hated them.
We might be inclined to think that Levi Yitzhak would next explain why this is a problem for Moab, yet what he says is surprising, because it’s actually more of a problem for Israel:
This is why Moab feared the people greatly, meaning the mixed multitude, the proselytes who were joined to Israel. For they were numerous, and they were especially talented at raising up sparks…
For a hasidic mystic like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, “raising up sparks” alludes to the Kabbalistic notion of the cosmic efficacy of studying Torah and fulfilling mitzvot.
Howard Schwartz, master of Jewish storytelling and mythology, explains Kabbalistic cosmogeny beautifully and succinctly:
At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.
In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.
That is why we were created — to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendants of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles — to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.
And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.
The Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572, sometimes known also as the Arizal, was the father of Lurianic Kabbalah) taught that “raising the sparks” is accomplished through Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, but not in a narrow and rigid sense. The Ari taught: “"There is no sphere of existence including organic and inorganic nature, that is not full of holy sparks which are mixed in with the kelippot [husks] and need to be separated from them and lifted up."
Raising the sparks requires more than cultural absorption, difficult as that is for one who converts to Judaism; it requires spiritual devotion and great commitment. Many who convert to Judaism come with a wealth of spiritual devotion and commitment. They are eager to cast their lot with the Jewish people and take on the obligations of Jewish life. If we are honest, most of us have said at one time another, “Some converts make the best Jews.” As Levi Yitzhak put it, “they were especially talented at raising up sparks.” Converts can be a challenge to Jews, born into the tradition, who have not had reason to carefully consider their identity and commitment. I have met many families whose dynamic is discomfited and balance thrown out of kilter by an eager and enthusiastic soul who joins Israel and joins that family, imbued with a desire to live a full Jewish life beyond the normal scope of the family.
Would that all of us, regardless of our background and upbringing, could come to Jewish tradition, learning, and practice, with the open eyes and searching soul of one who comes to it anew: questioning, challenging, appreciating, marveling, absorbing, adapting, shaping, and renewing traditions that have been passed from generation to generation—and then passing them along to the next generation with love and joy.
(Fireworks photos were taken July 3, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio.)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman