From Columbia to Columbia; from degradation to dignity; from static to dynamic liturgy. And a talking donkey, to boot.
On the evening of June 17 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat for an hour in a Bible study class, and then shot nine people dead, igniting a wave of grief, horror, anger, despair—and frustration that violent racism is still a fact of life in this country, and that civil rights are as much a dream as they are a reality for far too many Americans. Ten days after the Emanuel AME Church shooting, Bree Newsome shimmied up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia and unhooked the Confederate battle flag that has flown there since 1961. Whatever it may once have symbolized, the “Stars and Bars” is today an emblem of hatred and racial violence.
Permit me a moment of home town pride: Bree Newsome grew up in another Columbia, Maryland (not South Carolina), where I have lived for the past three decades and where we raised our four children. It was Newsome’s act—bold, forthright, proactive—that launched a serious discussion in this country about the meaning of the Confederate flag in the 21st century, the power of symbols, and the importance of taking them seriously. We see where that has gone in a short time: S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley has called for the permanent removal of the flag from the capitol. Walmart, Amazon, Apple, Sears, eBay, and others have pulled all merchandise with the Confederate flag. Yet it is abundantly clear that as far as we have come in the realm of civil rights, we have a long way to go before everyone in this country is assured of living the “American dream” without worry of discrimination and violence. Redemption is still a far-off dream for far too many Americans.
This week’s parashah, Balak, tells a story that would seem wholly unconnected to the events in South Carolina and the crying need for redemption from racial bigotry and violence in this nation. The Talmud, however, provides a wonderful bridge. The story told in Parshat Balak is simultaneously serious, and seasoned with burlesque comedy and satire. The Moabites’ go-to prophet is a man so daft that his donkey can see and comprehend what he cannot, and proves this by uttering human speech.
But the prophet Bilaam is out to make cold, hard cash by doing the bidding of King Balak of Moab, across whose land the Israelites are traveling on their way to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Bilaam presents a real and present danger to Israel:
Balak son of Tzippor, who was the king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Bilaam son of Be’or in Petor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
If Balak’s speech reminds you of the paranoia of the bloodthirsty pharaoh of Egypt, you are on the right track. While the Moabites are the latest in a string of enemies Israel encounters in the Wilderness who seek her demise (joining the ranks of the Amalekites, the Edomites, and the Amorites) King Balak reminds us of Pharaoh in a way the others do not. Balak identifies Israel as the people that came out of Egypt but even more, his comments are reminiscent of Pharaoh, who tells 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 1:9)
Where Pharaoh decrees the death of the Hebrew baby boys lest they rise up against him and assigns midwives the gruesome task of rooting them out and killing them, Balak hires a prophet to curse Israel. Is Israel’s escape from the murderous intent of Balak and the greedy grasp of Bilaam another exodus?
The Exodus we celebrate each year on Passover is on-going; redemption is continually and crucially needed. Our story of national redemption is the core of our identity as a people. What it represents—arising from degradation, striving for freedom and dignity— is the universal dream of all humanity. It is an essential plank of our mission as a people. Our Sages recognized and honored the centrality of the meaning of the Exodus by assigning it a place of honor and prominence in our liturgy: it is the organizing principle in the section of prayers known as the “Shema and its blessings.” Twice daily we recite prayers that sketch out the Jewish view of history, from creation to ultimate and culminating redemption; the account of our redemption from Egypt presages the messianic future.
There is a suggestion in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 12b) that some or all of the story of Bilaam ought to be included in the prayers—specifically the Shema—as a reminder of the Exodus. Are you surprised?
R. Abbahu b. Zutrati said in the name of R. Yehudah b. Zevida: [The Rabbis] wanted to include the section of Balak in the Shema, but they did not do so because it would have meant too great a burden for the congregation.
R. Abbahu learned from R. Yehudah b. Zevida that when the earlier Sages shaped the liturgy, they considered including the story of Balak in the Shema, but decided against it because it is so long. Perhaps you’re wondering: Why not include a verse or two? They tell us further along that we only make separations between Torah passages where Moses did. The question posed here is: Why include this passage at all?
Why [did they want to include it]? Because it contains the words, God who brought them forth out of Egypt (Numbers 23:22). Then let us say the section on usury or weights, in which the exodus from Egypt is mentioned.
The first answer offered to explain why one might include the Bilaam passage in the Shema is that Bilaam, in his second oracle, refers to the Exodus from Egypt. But this is hardly an unusual thing. If that alone qualifies for inclusion in the Shema, we might consider the passages in Leviticus that forbid usury and the use of inaccurate weights and measures when conducting business. An obvious response to the challenge posed by comparing Bilaam with usury and false weights is that the Exodus from Egypt involved the redemption of Israel from the jaws of an enemy that sought her destruction. Usury and false weights are not in this category. R. Yose b. Avin, however, rejects the very suggestion that the mention of the Exodus is the reason the Sages considered using the passage about Bilaam. There is another verse, he tells us, that makes the passage relevant to the recitation of Shema:
Rather, said R. Yose b. Avin, [the reason is] because it contains the verse, They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them (or: get them up) (Numbers 24:9).
The connection, according to R. Yose b. Avin, is forged by the image of the lion. Its crouching and arising evokes “lie down and rise up” in the first paragraph of Shema. If that is the salient element in the story of Bilaam, then why not excerpt that verse alone to recite with Shema? The Rabbis explain that doing this is inappropriate because we follow textual divisions as Moses set them out. Rather than Bilaam, we have a paragraph about tzitzit (fringes).
…Why did they include the section of fringes [instead of the passage about Bilaam]? R. Yehudah b. Chaviva said: Because it makes reference to five [alt: six] things: the precept of tzitzit (fringes), the Exodus from Egypt, the yoke of the commandments, [a warning against] the opinions of the minim (heretics), the hankering after sexual immorality, and the hankering after idolatry.
(The Talmud proceeds to explain how the third paragraph of the Shema, which became a fixed feature of the liturgy, in fact addresses the six concerns expressed above.)
I am intrigued by the Talmud’s suggestion that an alternative passage to the paragraph about fringes could be brought to illuminate the theme of Redemption.
How might we use Bilaam? Here, the plan of a powerful king, employing a powerful wizard-prophet, is foiled by a simple creature—the donkey—who is attuned to God. The story can be interpreted as a reminder that power and position do not always succeed in enslaving, oppressing, and destroying people. How many powerful kingdoms throughout history have disintegrated as a result of their own internal corruption and the perseverance of idealistic opponents? The story of Bilaam is one of hope that corruption and evil intent do not always succeed, and redemption and wisdom sometimes come from unexpected places—the stubborn donkey becomes a model for our refusal to accept injustice and oppression.
While the Talmud brings the passages concerning usury and false weights as examples of Torah texts that mention of the Exodus but would not be suitable for inclusion in the Shema, I’d like to suggest that they might well serve that purpose admirably. The modern corollary to the Egyptian enslavement is the chronically impoverished who suffer from the systemic problems in our society that prevent them from experiencing redemption and true freedom. The passage concerning usury and false weights can serve to remind us of the need to clean up the system and employ “honest weights” so the poor can experience their own Exodus from the Egypt of poverty.
I can envision a dynamic liturgy with a space created in the Shema—perhaps weekly?—to bring a text that mentions the Exodus or suggests a model for redemption. We would pause in our rote recitation of prayers and consider and discuss the interpretations and ramifications of the “guest text” in the service, thereby reminding ourselves of our obligation to not only be grateful benefactors of God’s redemption, but instruments for bring about other people’s Exoduses.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
This is, of course, a highly subjective matter. Determining where and how Moses partitioned the text of Torah—without even addressing the historical source of Torah—is all but impossible to determine. The Rabbis seem concerned that the story of Bilaam, which extends from Numbers 22:2—24:5 (three chapters) should be considered one indivisible unit.
Leviticus 25:34-38 instructs the Israelites not to lend the poor money or give them food at interest, thereby taking advantage of them and, in the long run, increasing their debt. It closes, I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. Similarly, Leviticus 19:35-36 forbids the use of false measures of length, weight, and volume in the conduct of business and similarly closes, I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.