Parshat Balak 5776
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Balak 5776

Shabbat Shalom.

Try your vegetables! That’s what our mothers used to say. And if your Mom was like mine, she would continue with the following: “You don’t have to eat them all, just try them. You, in fact, might like them.” And then she taught me something, without realizing she was teaching, rather, thinking that she was bribing, she made dipping sauces. And so my broccoli was wonderful with soy and vinegar, my peas were great with butter or margarine…And that became the way I taught my kids.
Try it, you may like it.

Of all the things that your rabbi could be speaking about today, we would hardly believe that it would be about feeding vegetables to children. After all this is Parshat Balak, and we know it’s about a talking donkey!

And I will get to that.

We are also between two national conventions, and these are very important times in our nation’s history. Much will be determined by the outcome of the presidential election.

I, as you know, am constrained by what came to the public’s attention the last few nights- the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, placed into law by the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, indicated that clergy and religious institutions cannot become political advocates for a particular candidate or party. It was a continuation or deepening of the constitutional law, deepening the power in the separation of church and state. One candidate inspires his crowd to break down that dimension of that wall. For minority religions, that would be quite threatening. One of the genius notions of the constitutional democracy framed by our American forefathers is in this separation. We might be bothered by politics, and disturbed by religion, but we have learned from history, that the combination of the two is lethal, deadly…and that is not hyperbolic.

As your rabbi and the professional who leads this congregation, it may have seemed obvious who I have supported in the past, but I also have been very clear on these boundaries. And so my conversation has been intentionally a values conversation. I have tried to parse out what the bigger issues are, what they represent in terms of either political philosophy or the values of the Torah tradition. Know that has been very important. Even the guests, that we have had here, have been invited based on our concerns. And when political candidates in the past have been invited, every time, members of the other party have also been invited. And that then sits within the framework of our 501C3 status and the law of our land.

I hope that law is preserved. As I hope religious leaders will continue to speak to values- religious values, American democratic values (that is, the values of democracy and the preservation of freedom) and human values. These are the values meant to defend and promote the human condition and society.

I was away. I was studying in Jerusalem at the Hartman Institute with twelve of our B’nai Torah members. We had an outstanding time. We learned and we laughed. We shared the beauty of being in Jerusalem and the depths of the study at Hartman. We all came away enriched, and yes, in some ways, changed. The theme was based on the question of the boundaries of being Jewish. But there was a lot to think about regarding how we live with those who are different- how we are in relation to outsiders, the intermarried, converts, and being in Israel, the Arab and Palestinian populations.

Tobi and I then travelled to France for vacation for the express purpose of my niece’s wedding. The vacation was wonderful. The wedding was outstanding. Performing weddings for my children or nieces and nephews is one of the great perks of being a rabbi. I’d love to tell you more about it…

But I will also reflect on Nice. Once again, France and the world were devastated by another act of ISIS terror. It was an extraordinary tragedy. French news outlets don’t deal with these incidents the way American news does. There was not a constant repetition of the image of the event. It was shown and it was followed by hours and hours of conversation. How is it prevented, what do we do, what’s the nature of all this- in addition to pointing fingers, there is also self-reflection.

Prime Minister Hollande was quoted speaking about an essential tension in French society and government and culture. He spoke about the universal values of the enlightenment. He spoke about openness, freedom, equality and liberty. He mentioned the universal values that are so much a part of French identity and culture. And yet, he spoke about the need for preservation of that which is truly French. The preservation of language and food and values and openness and beauty. And he noted the conflict that exists between the two.

We saw the same thing a few weeks ago with BREXIT. This was clearly a conflict between the particular identity of the English people and the broader universalism represented by EU universalism.

And we know that this, too, is a central tension that we face as a Jewish people. Our identities are like diagrams. We hold multiple identities and we value that. We want to be citizens of our nation and the world.

We are Americans and we are Jews. And we live in a nation with multiple races, religions and identities. We value that. We know that is fundamental to America, as a bastion of freedom as a home to immigrants and all different types of people. What does it mean when we ask about returning America to Americans? Are we referring to the original inhabitants of this continent, Native Americans? I hardly think so. Is it about the early British colonizers? The Spaniards? The French? Or is it about Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Asians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Mexicans…here I even have to say Canadians!…and yes, Muslims from many nations of the Mideast and northern Africa.

The challenge is to create a balance between original identities and American culture and values, and that is not easy. What we have seen is that after a generation or two generations, there is an assimilation that exists and a common identity emerges. Sometimes we learn that we dip broccoli into soy sauce.

For us, we know that then places pressure on how we keep our Jewish identity and our way of living alive as we see the next generation assimilate.

And so that then brings me to the last issue that I will raise this morning and back to the Torah reading. This time I can say not just a speaking donkey, but a talking ass, because there will be no confusion.

You know, its different travelling these days. I remember in the beginning of my professional career coming back to a pile of messages, phone calls to return, mail to open and respond to…not any more. My iPhone is my travelling companion- my calendar, my phone, my reminder, etc. Not always such a good thing, but it makes reentry much better.

The issue I returned to had to do with a change in a polling station. You may have read or heard about it. The Supervisor of Elections, based on what she claimed to be many frightened phone calls, changed the venue of voting in November from the ICBR to a local library. After announcing that voting would take place at the ICBR, she received many letters of protest and complaint. When it was announced, the members of ICBR were so happy. It represented a type of acceptance into the political landscape OF THE COMMUNITY. They are a welcoming bunch. It is a place that teaches a normative, peaceful Islam. I have been there for celebration and for learning and meeting.

Susan Bucher, the Supervisor of Elections, responded to fear and hatred and changed the venue. It has led to terrible disappointment.

My involvement as a presiding officer in the Boca Raton Interfaith Community Association has begun. I will be delivering a letter signed by ministers and priests and rabbis. We believe the move is contrary to the spirit we wish to grow. We want a spirit of mutual understanding and respect. We want to live in a community that reflects religious freedom and pluralism. There are over 440 voting sites in Palm Beach County. The vast majority of them are in churches and synagogues.

Many of the letters and emails that the supervisor received were inspired by organizations that propagate the fear and hatred of this world and were, in fact, coming from people outside this county.

As of this moment, multiple calls to Susan Bucher have gone unanswered. I will be delivering the letter on Monday.
You should know this.

We can be a part of a problem or part of a solution.
Those who are fearful to enter this mosque can vote early and cast a vote through the mail. That’s their right and their privilege.

And, we know too well what happens when people are silent in the face of injustice…

Now, back to the story.
Balak, the King of Moab is threatened by these Hebrew people. He wants them destroyed. They, WE, are different. We scare him by the way we live. And so he hires his prophet, a soothsayer named Bilaam.

Bilaam saddles his donkey to go and curse the Hebrews. The donkey is dissuaded by its vision. And is whipped because it won’t travel to where it need be. And the ass speaks because of the intervention of an angel. The angel also appears to Bilaam. And in spite of his attempts to go and curse the Hebrew people, he cannot. And, yes, he sees them and he blesses them.

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov
Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How beautiful are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places Israel.
The commentators say that Bilaam had to see the people. And what did he see? He saw a beautiful community that respected each other’s rights, lived peacefully and humbly with each other…

But it’s a crazy story. Mister Ed doesn’t really exist and neither do talking donkeys…or do they?
But the real issue, I believe, is found in the ability to see and hear another people. Then there can grow knowledge and understanding.

It’s when we are closed to others that we create myths and generalizations and stories that simply are not living realities.

We have experienced this throughout history.

Our lives must balance openness to the world and an affirmation of our particularity, who we are what we do, and we must live to expect the same of others…all others.

We are here on the 17th day of Tammuz. Tomorrow is a fast day. The day the walls were breached and lead to the destruction of Jerusalem is remembered.

Let us know that around us walls are being breached. Sometimes walls must come down; some walls protect our identity and sovereignty safely. We need the wisdom to know the difference and the courage to make sure that the lessons of the past are learned and the values learned are lived out in the way we choose to live our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.