An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s Torah portion deals mostly with two negative personalities: Balak, the king of Moab, and Balaam ben Be’or. Balak, king of Moab, sees Am Yisrael advancing toward the Land of Israel in its long journey through the desert, and he becomes concerned. He knows very well that all the nations that tried to fight Am Yisrael failed and were defeated, so he is filled with fear and tries to find an unconventional way to beat the Jewish nation. He turns to Balaam ben Be’or, the famous magician known for the fact that whatever comes out of his mouth comes true, and pleads with him to curse Am Yisrael. Balak hopes that this way he will be able to defeat this unbeatable nation.
Balaam, the famous magician, tries to curse Am Yisrael three times, per the request of Balak, the king of Moab. Each time, he tries from a different angle, a different direction. But time and time again, it does not work. He opens his mouth to curse and blessings come out of his mouth, praises and wishes come out of his throat. Balak gets angry, furious. He uses harsh words and banishes him with an inferred threat: “Hurry, go back to your place...”
Following three failed attempts, Balaam gets the message. He chooses to tell Balak about what will occur in the future, in the “end of days” – those same faraway days of complete geula (redemption) and tikkun olam (repair of the world). Then, according to Balaam, Am Yisrael will defeat its enemies and impose its Torah values of morality and justice upon all of humanity.
This subject of redemption is worthy of closer examination. When the Rambam formulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith, those that define a person as a “believer,” he included among them faith in the coming of the Messiah. This is also the belief that someday the Jewish nation, and therefore all of humanity, will merit redemption. But this demands an explanation: Why is it so important to believe that someday, in the future, redemption will come? When man looks around at what is happening in the world, historically and currently, he might wonder. On the one hand, one can find humanity which is wonderful, charitable, moral and incredibly beautiful. On the other hand, the world contains shocking evil, tyranny and defamation of human dignity.
Our reality is complex. Each of us has within us forces that work in opposing directions. We have the will to do good and benefit others, but we can also be incredibly selfish which can lead us to negative actions. We believe in wonderful values, but we see that some people commit horrific acts in the name of their values. Our will to provide for others occasionally gets intermingled with the desire to control. Our aspiration for unity gets entangled with the desire for uniqueness. This is the complex human reality we know.
How do we cope with this? Many tend to despair. This is reality and we have to learn to live with it, they claim. But Judaism is not willing to make peace with this kind of reality. It anticipates redemption, tikkun olam, a human reality that has no evil, just goodness.
By anticipating redemption, we develop a tremendous drive to advance the process. This drive is what pushes humanity forward. It is what causes people to give of their time and of their money for the betterment of others whom they do not know and from whom they would not gain anything. This drive cannot grow in apathetic ground. It cannot exist in people who do not feel optimistic about a better future.
The fact that about half the Jewish nation today lives in the Land of Israel, in a sovereign Jewish state, is not something to be taken for granted. Anyone who knows even a little Jewish history – the pogroms, the expulsions, the blood libels – cannot help but wonder how such a nation could withstand so much and then return to the land from which it was expelled two thousand years ago! This turn of events could not have occurred had the nation not believed wholeheartedly in redemption. Without faith in a better future, the Jewish nation would have been erased from history.
We are here – living, creating, building, and studying Torah – because of the faith of our forefathers, those who did not lose their optimistic anticipation even when their circumstances made such optimism seem surrealistic.
It is doubtful if Balaam, who predicted the redemption, knew how much strength his words would bestow on Am Yisrael even thousands of years after they were uttered.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.