Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak

I am again in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual conference where I am learning alongside Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis.  Our teachers are the leading thinkers in the Jewish world.   Here I can renew my spirit and rekindle my Jewish passions.   I remain grateful that the congregation and its leadership afford me this time.

Being here during the first two weeks in July provides the most curious of circumstances.  I have for many years only observed July 4th from afar. This provides an interesting symmetry for it is also true that I have celebrated Israel’s independence day from a distance.  The question then is what does this distance teach us about what we love?

On the surface distance promotes fear and uncertainty.  What we look at from afar we worry about and feel we don’t fully understand.  As I sit here in Jerusalem I for example worry about the weather in the states.  Was there any damage in my neighborhood from the recent storms?  Did trees fall in my back yard or was my basement flooded?  When I sit in my home in New York I worry about Israel’s struggles.  Will there be more violence in Southern Israel now that the Muslim Brotherhood has assumed control of Egypt?  Will there be civil war between Israel’s secular majority and its growing ultra-Orthodox minority?

These are real worries to be sure.  But just as life continues in the states despite the weather so too does life continue here despite worries about security and simmering tensions within Israel’s society.

Distance also affords an appreciation that is sometimes lost when what we love is held too close.  Had I been in Israel for Yom Haatzmaut I would have been occupied by family gatherings and watching official celebrations.  Sitting at a distance I see more clearly Israel’s idealism and founding vision.  When we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in our synagogues we recall that Israel represents something unparalleled in Jewish history.  Here is a vibrant, albeit cacophonous, Jewish democracy.  Moreover, the modern State of Israel means that the Jewish people have returned to history.  Here we determine our people’s destiny—for better or worse.

Had I been in New York for July 4th I would have attended barbeques, visited the beach, watched fireworks and undoubtedly grumbled about traffic.  Looking from afar however I see different things. I am reminded instead of the values on which our country was founded.  I see not the simmering tensions that the recent Supreme Court decision still did not resolve, but instead the blessings of American democracy.  In the United States no religious group receives state sanction.  Every community must rise and fall on its own merits.  No one is favored.  No one is advantaged.  Sitting here I do not see the difficulties of raising money to support each and every synagogue or 501(c)(3) but instead only the blessings contained in our founders’ words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Israel’s enemy, the Moabite king Balak, commands his prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Instead he stands on the hilltop and looks down on the Israelites from afar and offers a blessing: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov…How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”  (Numbers 24:5)

It is his words, found in this week’s portion, that begin our morning prayers.  When standing in our familiar sanctuaries we recall the person who stood at a distance and looked from afar.

Sometimes even the most intimate of things must be appreciated from a distance.  Sometimes we must behold from afar what we most love.

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