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Learning From the Nations

Dvar Haftarah: Learning From the Nations

Sophie Bigot-Goldblum ,  CY Student, 2018-19

Admitting we’ve learned astronomy from the Chaldeans and philosophy from the Greeks is something that the Jewish tradition has come to terms with. In a sense, less than conceding to the intellectual and scientific superiority of foreign nations, by admitting that there is wisdom among the nations, we are defending our holy turf: The Bible. Each nation has its field of excellence, but only Jews have been chosen as depositary of the Holy Word and the sole partner in God’s covenant. True, the other nations may have inherited the mastery of science and art but none can claim knowing God like we do. Not too bad a deal.
However, time and time again, the Bible itself cunningly challenges this claim of exclusivity between God and the Jewish people.  In Parshat Balak, we hear of a man having direct contact with the God of Israel. This man’s name is “Bal’am” which literally translates, “not of the people.” Nevertheless, this “Bal’am” worships God, the God of the Israelites no less, as his own -‘The Lord  my God’ ( Numbers: 22:18)  Through the prophecy he receives, he becomes the mouthpiece for God’s blessing and protection against the destructive ambitions of  Balak  – whose name means “devastator.”
At first glance, Bal’am seems  to be a perfect candidate for the title of “gentile ally.” Here is a non-Israelite prophet who confirms our sense of the supremacy of our God. Bal’am states repeatedly that he cannot circumvent the wishes of the powerful God of the Israelites-if God refuses to curse Israel, then Balak’s wishes will be thwarted. And yet, the rabbinic tradition portrays him as a rather dubious character.  Perhaps there is some level of ambiguity in the verses regarding Balaam’s true heart’s desire. The intensity of this criticism reveals discomfort with redemption, even so modest,  coming from an outsider.
The Kli Yakar, a 16th-century commentator from Prague writes about Bal’am:
Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey: This, too, was a necessity for that specific time. It was intended to show Bal’am that he is comparable to this donkey which does not naturally speak but, only to honor Israel […] Additionally, it was to prevent the nations of the world from claiming that if they were given prophets, they would have improved their ways.
And yet Bal’am is not the first non-Israelite to have a relationship with the God of Abraham. Before him, Hagar – whose name once again bears witness to her own estrangement-“ha-ger: the alien” – is, like Bal’am, visited by a “malakh haShem,” an angel of the Lord. The angel’s intervention saves her child, Ishmael, and even goes so far as to promise her his future greatness. The story of Hagar and Ishmael illustrates that God’s mercy and redemption extend to the child of a foreign servant. The case of Bal’am shows that God’s blessing can spring from a foreigner, that redemption’s agents are just as unpredictable as redemption itself.
Like Bal’am with his wounded foot hitting the donkey who can feel what he does not see, it is our denial of the knowledge and wisdom of others that too often leads to violence and ultimately hurts us. Our parashah teaches us that we must acknowledge our own shortfalls and experience gratitude for all of the wisdom that God has granted to the nations of the world, the wisdom that we have already received from others, and for what is yet to be learned from foreign lips.
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