This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel
The historian Salo Baron famously critiqued the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that we often associate with Jewish identity. But at the Pesach seder every year, we declare that in every generation, we have enemies that threaten to annihilate the Jewish people, but God saves us each time.
The experience of the generation that left Egypt is the paradigmatic Exodus. But by the time we reach Parashat Balak, that entire generation has passed on, per the decree resulting from the episode of the spies. There is now a new generation. Did this generation experience any sort of similar threat of annihilation? And if so, is this instructive for how we should view Jewish history?
A close reading of Parashat Balak reveals striking thematic and literary parallels to Parashat Shemot. Here are some of the examples of the similarities in language:
ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא… ועתה לכה נא ארה לי את העם הזה כי עצום הוא ממני (במדבר כב, ג; ו)
|וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ (שמות א, ט)|
|ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל (כב, ג)||וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (שמות א, ו)|
In each case, we have a king who is very afraid of B’nei Yisrael because they are a “large nation” who might harm his core constituency, and as a result of that, the king attempts a solution to “deal” with the problem.
But there are some key differences:
In Shemot, the king is afraid and imposes his fear on his people, while in Balak, the fear begins with the people, who then appoint a king to deal with the problem.
The fears, and therefore solutions, of each king differ as well. In Shemot, Pharaoh’s fear is that B’nei Yisrael would go to war with Egypt. He, therefore, seeks to weaken them through hard labor and to kill their baby boys so that they won’t grow up to be enemy soldiers. Balak’s fear, however, is that B’nei Yisrael would deplete the resources of Moav. Cursing them to stunt their growth might be a sufficient solution.
Despite these differences, though, the Gemara in Sotah suggests that Bilam, the sorcerer that Balak sought out to curse B’nei Yisrael, was the advisor to Pharaoh who suggested killing the Jewish male infants. This suggests that the comparison is worth exploring.
Do these two experiences indicate a pattern? The anti-Semitic tropes of Pharaoh and Balak can still be heard in our times, even though many of us in America do not face daily threats of anti-Semitism. Last summer, marchers in Charlottesville who chanted, “the Jews will not replace us.” In February, a faith leader remarked “the Powerful Jews are my enemy.” In March, a councilman in Washington, D.C. declared that the “Rothschilds” control the climate and the federal government. The common thread between all of these scenarios is an unfounded fear of Jews being too powerful, like that we see twice in the Torah. Hopefully, these parallels give us a greater insight into our own history, although Baron is likely correct that the sum-total of our history is not just these trying times.
But more than that, these experiences should teach us about how we relate to others. Americans are in constant debate about how we relate to others – whether it is those throughout the world who wish to enter the United States or minorities already within our borders. Security is one side of the conversation that must be dealt with, but the question is, what results from our seeking security? Does fear lead us to unnecessarily oppressing an “other,” like Pharaoh and Balak did? With awareness of our own history, hopefully we will cultivate sufficient self-awareness to not allow fear to guide us towards an unwarranted hatred of others.
Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is a student at RIETS and the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and he served this year as rabbinic intern at Young Israel of Plainview.