Posted on July 19, 2019
There is a lot of debate among rabbis, and within congregations, about how much political speak is okay to have from the bimah: There are some who come to Temple precisely because they want to make meaning of the day’s news or to be galvanized toward something of bigger political purpose than themselves. There are others who come for a respite, as the one place where they can leave politics behind.
Judaism is not politics-free. The Torah is a political book. Statements such as, “Rest on the seventh day,” “You shall have no other gods besides me,” “Tend the earth and keep it,” “Take care of the stranger, for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt”— those are all political statements. They just mean different things to us at different times in human history.
This week’s Torah portion is all about the fear of foreigners—and about this group wishing that that group would just go back to where they came from. In the American landscape this week, pretty much anything that I say about this will be understood as political by those who follow the news.
And, Torah would not shy away from that. As Jews, we know that the whole project of Torah is reading its stories through the lens of our own experience, in our own time. That said, the Torah is also contradictory. The answer to the question of what to do about “foreigners” may feel obvious to me from my own political standpoint, but I’m sure someone else could find the opposite in the Torah’s long text.
This week’s story comes in two main parts. In the first part, the Israelites are the foreigners. They have been escaping from slavery, making their way through the wilderness, and they are coming near to the land of Moav. The Moabite king is terrified “because that people is so numerous.” He says to the elders of his land and others, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” He is scared that if the Israelites enter his land, no resources will be left for him and his people. He prepares to drive them off and asks his prophet, Bil’am, to curse them. Bil’am is ultimately stopped by an angel: In this case, God wants these huddled masses to be honored, rather than cursed. Bil’am ends up blessing the Israelites with words made famous in our morning liturgy: Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.