Friday, July 20, 2012

Parashat Matot-Masei

Below please find this week's d'var Torah by our congregant Vic Goldberg. 

Matot and Ma'sei,  this week's portions, deal with the end of the years in the wilderness,  and the things that God tells Moses to instruct the Israelite people, including "you shall take possession of the Promised Land and settle in it;"  "how to apportion it among yourselves", and the warning that "if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those who you allow to remain will be stings in the eyes and thorns in the sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live."   Pretty powerful  narrative, with painful relevance today.   But one wonders what the Moabite narrative might have been;  they who were to be on the receiving end of this settlement. 
Conflicting narratives about Israel came to the forefront of my life about nine years ago.  I was completing  13 years as vice chairman of the Institute of International known for administering the Fulbright scholarships and 250 other international exchange programs, ....and  I wanted to do something in gratitude for how that opportunity had enriched my life.  The CEO there asked me what was important in my life, and Israel immediately came to mind. 
As a young American Jew in 1948, (I was 15 years old), I lived in Chicago next door to immigrants with numbers on their forearms, near a parochial school whose students thought I killed Christ, and I was totally drawn to  this new nation, a safe place for Jews which embodied the cultural and moral values with which I was raised.
Now here I was in 2004, having watched nothing but strife in the Middle East for all my adult life, wondering what if anything could bring peace to this Jewish Homeland I had cherished all my life.  Clearly political leadership  had failed, ..... and maybe only work at the grassroots level could form the basis of lasting peace down the road. 
And so, I envisioned a Middle East Peace Prize.  To win it you had to have two people, one Jewish Israeli and one Arab Muslim, working together at the grass roots.  I joked that we should have called it the Don Quixote IIE Prize for Peace in the Middle East, since there was a serious possibility that we would be unable to find a Jewish Israeli and an Arab Muslim working together for peace….one of whom had had a connection to an international exchange program in which IIE was involved.  But we have done so, with no shortage of candidates, for 8 years running.
The winners of the first prize in 2005 dealt directly with this issue of conflicting narratives.  Dan Bar On and Sami Adwan were both college professors, Dan at Ben Gurion University and Sami at Bethlehem University.  They had constructed a middle school history textbook for four historical periods: the Balfour declaration, the 1948 war, the Yom Kippur War and the first Intifada.  On the left hand side of each page was the Israeli narrative, on the right was the Arab narrative, and the middle was composed of the blank lines of a workbook.  To develop the textbook they sometimes had to meet  across checkpoints; and to train 10 Israeli and 10 Palestinian teachers, they eventually had to fly them to Crete for joint sessions.  To this day, neither the Israeli Ministry of Education nor the Palestinian Ministry of Education have approved this textbook.  But with the book's intervening historical periods now complete,  it is being used at the University level, and so the work is not in vain.
The 2006 Prize went to an all Israeli team, one Jewish, one Muslim, that established an Arab Israeli Community Center In Jaffa.
The 2007 Prize to a team that established the first intregrated school in Israel, with student enrollment and faculty, each balanced 50/50  and with Jewish and Muslim Co-Directors. They have since expanded to three schools.
2008 to founders of a bereavement group called Parents Circle: a Jew who lost his daughter to a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and a Palestinian whose brother was released from an Israeli prison... beaten so badly that he died shortly thereafter.
2009 to the founders of a Young Professionals Alliance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. 
2010 to a former member of an elite IDF army unit and a self described Palestinian intifada fighter who formed a group called Combatants for Peace.
2011 to two women working in Be'er Sheva for the civil rights of Bedouins.
and 2012 to two Israelis, one Jewish, one Muslim each heading an organization devoted to civil rights within Israel, who file joint briefs to the Israeli Supreme Court on civil rights issues involving women, Muslims, gays, ...and Jews striving to live their lives unrestricted by Haredeem and other Orthodox forces.
My wife Pat and I go to Israel each year to present the prize and each year are in awe of what the winners have done.  These absolutely heroic people have internalized scripture which is quite different from this week's portion:   Leviticus 19:18, "love thy neighbor as thyself."  More to the point, from Rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man. That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary: go and learn it."
In some years, the winning teams have been composed of one Palestinian and one Israeli.  In other years, both winners have been Israeli citizens.   Where both have been Israeli citizens, the work has been focused on civil rights, and it strongly evokes the civil rights struggles in the United States in the last half of the 20th century. 
I remember as a boy on a trip to the American South seeing the water fountains and bathrooms with signs designating “white only.”  I remember the tumultuous years in which African Americans fought to get the legal right to vote; and the continuing battle for equal educational and economic opportunity. 
I also remember the active role many American Jews played in those historical efforts.  And well we should have!  Having for centuries been the victim of discrimination, it was, and is, only proper that we help others to be freed from it.  That lesson sometimes seems lost in the Israel of today, but I think that same positive progress can happen there.  And it will require very similar effort.  It will require action citizens who are conscious of the disconnnect between their moral heritage and the realities of their society,… and who are willing to get out of their comfort zone and use all the tools at their disposal to pressure their government and their society for change.  All in all, however, In this area of Israeli civil rights, I am somewhat optimistic. 
In the area of finding peace with the Palestinians, however, my optimism has pretty much vanished.  In past years, the necessity and inevitability of a two-state solution seemed to be a given.  But on our trip last month, the secular Israeli liberals seemed dispirited, an increasingly powerless portion of society, ....with Mr. Netanyahu focusing on disputes with the religious parties over military service.   And a week ago, the report of a Netanyahu-appointed commission recommending that all the illegal settlements should be declared legal, could presage a disastrous turn away from the two-state solution, .....which has been the cornerstone of hope for those who seek long term peace in the Middle East.....the only solution that will allow a state that is both Jewish and democratic.
I believe that failure to establish a separate Palestinian state will still leave us with a Jewish state, ....but given birth rates of the Palestinians and the Orthodox Jews, not one that is democratic.  We cringe at the term "apartheid," but that is pretty descriptive of what will be, and what will happen. 
I don't think the Israeli government has really digested the lessons of the Arab Spring, or the ramifications of Palestinians adopting, ....not arms which the IDF could crush, ....but massive Martin Luther King-type peaceful protests.  Nor the kind of international sanctions that forced well-intentioned employers like Ford and IBM, who were hiring and promoting blacks and coloreds,.... to leave South Africa, when major pension funds threatened divestiture of their stock.  Failure to achieve a two-state solution will be very bad for Israel, for the United States, and for Jews in general.
Living alongside others has been a challenge from even before biblical times.  And sometimes whole societies have vanished.  Things don't necessarily work out okay in the end.  We're still in a wilderness, and narratives remain to be written.  But it's the Middle East;  and it's full of tribal lunatics; and the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to take turns missing opportunities for peace. I  still believe that grass roots efforts between Arabs and Jews are the best chance to one day force rational change.  I just fear that time is running out.  I hope and pray Israeli's are up to the task of peace, for it means their survival.  It will break my heart if they aren’t.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Why do we Hate Balaam? Musings on Parashat Balak 5772

As I sat on the phone formulating my response, I stewed.  I stewed with desire to unload my anger against a giant corporation that in my mind was willfully, and cruelly blocking my ability to close on my home so that I could live a normal life.  All these emotions welled up within me as finally the other end of the line picked up, and suddenly I had a human being to speak with instead of my image of what that human being would be.  Try as I might, as much as I wanted to spew the curses that had been welling up within me, as much as I desired to make her feel my pain in her very being, blessing spilled forth from my lips. Words of thanks, and appreciation  were all I could say once i was in the presence of this sweet and caring human being. As I told many people later, the woman on the other end of the phone was from the midwest, the odds were that she was going to be pretty nice on the phone.   
Moving to Westchester turned out to be much more of a journey than I had expected. My family and I spent five weeks “in between homes” on our way to our new home in Port Chester. I still do not know how or why it took five weeks to get this done, however, on that journey I had a number of experiences. This experience of interacting with a person I felt like I needed to hate, brought me back to our parashah. For it is throughout our parashah that Balaam consistently tries to curse another group of people, namely the Israelites, yet the words that come out of his mouth are consistently words of praise, as I will sing from our text:

23:5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! ה. מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

And yet our tradition has hated Balaam even though these beautiful words came from his mouth.   Our biblical text rarely has a kind word to spare for him, and our talmudic text is scathing, where throughout the text his epithet is not simply Balaam but wicked Balaam! He is described as plotting secretly against the Israelites, and some of the allegations against him are simply appalling. 

So I wonder: What is it about Balaam that is so horrendous? How is it that a person who speaks so positively of Israel, is so vilified?  Balaam as a character has a few key traits that create this perfect storm of hatred.  However, the one I wish to focus on is that we never meet him. 
How can I say that you may ask? We read about him in the Torah, we are reading about him this week in our parashah.  Yet, how does Balaam interact with our people the Israelites in the desert? From a distance. From a vantage point where he is looking down at the Israelites, and the beautiful words that he speaks time and again, are described as being put into his mouth by G-d. Other than his death, Balaam is never described as interacting with any Israelite. (Numbers 31:8)
No it is in part for the exact same reason I was so ready to loathe the person on the other line that we as a people have been uncomfortable with Balaam.  He’s an unknown.  He’s never been in our presence, never had a conversation, he’s only talked to G-d, and in the end he barely listened to what G-d had to say.  
So I wonder what that has to say about our own perceptions of other people that we may never meet.   How often do we give ourselves the opportunity to be in someone else’s shoes rather than dissecting them based upon what we perceive? How often do we stop and take a moment to process where they are in the world before we assume certain stereotypes about them?

Susan T. Fiske, a noted social psychologist, has recently done quite a bit of research on this particular question. She argues that our perception of people stems from our preconceived view of their role in society. Her study suggests that we see most groups that we are not a part of as either envied groups, or scorned groups.  Envied groups are often seen as “ ...competent, but we view them as not on our side, so they seem cold...and untrustworthy.”(

 On the other hand, we have scorned groups.  In a recent study, Fiske showed images of characteristically scorned groups to participants who were in a Functional MRI machine, and monitored their brain patterns when seeing the scorned groups. The area of the brain that recognizes other people did not light up when the participants viewed members of the scorned groups.   “Fiske suspects that this hesitation to value the lives of those we scorn comes from not fully recognizing members of scorned groups as fellow human beings.”


It is so easy to ascribe any motive or emotion to a group of unknown people.  To say that any person, based upon their job, political allegiance, or simply their appearance makes them a caricature of everything we imagine they are capable of.   What is infinitely more challenging is to take the deep breath, and step back and try to see the people we are interacting with as far more than merely thoughtless automatons that represent everything we imagine they are.  Rather our challenge is to take a moment, and try to see the person as a human being, created in G-d’s image, and therefore worthy of being recognized as a individual regardless of their opinion, position or group affiliation.
A few years ago a book came out entitled: Why We Hate Us by Dick Meyer.   The premise of the book was deeper than the title, he argued that a deeper social shift was occurring in American society creating this erosion of trust and morality. However, his title and many of his examples throughout the book ring true: we hate us.  A short excerpt from his book provides a multitude of examples: “They loathe snails who drive slowly in the left lane. They don't like people who talk full volume about the heartbreak of their psoriasis on cell phone headsets in restaurants and quiet bookstores....They don't like it when they're talking with someone who starts thumbing their little digital personal device to answer an email from someone five hundred miles away.”
Our challenge throughout our lives is to not reduce people to things.   To not look out at that person who is doing something that irritates us, and group them together into this faceless mass that not only irks us but enrages us.   That we don’t look out at a random stranger and see the wicked Balaam, the unknown entity, but a fellow human being created in the divine Image.

Joining this community, it is with great joy that I look forward to seeing that spark within each of you as I come to know you over the years.  I hope that I will not be a faceless Rabbi to you, and that all of you will not be a throng of congregants to me.  Rather as a Kehilah Kedoshah, a holy community we work together to know each other and continue to make WRT, our community, a place to be proud of, and most importantly, our home.   

Shabbat Shalom.