Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ki Savo: Shipmates

The parsha begins with the formulation to be recited along with the bringing of the bikkurim, the recitation beginning with “arami oved avi”. Rashi ad loc quotes the classic midrash about how this posuk serves as the reference point for the concept of “machshava ke-maa’seh” regarding non-Jews’ with Judaicidal designs. The parsha ends with an ostensibly bizarre close to the “Tochachah”: “G-d will return you to Egypt in boats, along the way in which he said you would no longer see….” A closer examination of both will allow one to discern subtle variations on a particular theme.

Rashi and the midrashim both here and at the end of Vayeitzei mention that Lavan pursued Yaakov with murderous intent, only to be dissuaded by Divine vision. The Gemara [Sanhedrin 105b] notes that Bilaam was a direct descendant of Lavan, possibly even his son [some midrashim identify him AS Lavan]. The entire series of events in Parshas Balak, from the transformed-curse blessings to the incidents at Avel Shittim, can be seen as a more concerted effort on the part of Lavan’s descendants—if not Lavan himself—to “finish the job” that he wanted to, but couldn’t, at Har Gilead.

To further develop the theory, one must look at the centerpiece of the Balaamic “blessing” that went against everything he stood for: "Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav," "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bemidbar 23:9). Here is a more “classic” explanation of the concept, courtesy of Rabbi Yaacov Haber:

According to Bilaamism there can never be a chosen people. It is a step backward and very dangerous for one nation to be destined to show others the way. Universality denies national uniqueness, and therefore denies the existence of a chosen people. Chazal tell us that he was called Bilaam because of his universality; “b’lo am” (without nation). He taught that everyone should shed his or her nationalism and become a “citizen of Planet Earth”. He was above politics, war, racism and power struggles. He grew to be a “prophet like Moshe” among the nations. Bilaam was the Guru of universalism. [Parshas Balak--Bilaam, Mr. Planet Earth:]

With all due respect, R’ Haber may be missing the point. While Bilaam may have had strong misgivings with a “morality” that wasn’t “universal”, evidence from the Gemara and midrashim indicate that in truth, “Bilaamism” was all about Bilaam, and the best vehicle for Bilaamism was…a cross between immorality and amorality, or even a corss between Arendtian and Dionysian totalitarianism, by not divulging his true philosophy: whether there was no such thing as right or wrong [as indicated by his use of divination] or whether it was good to be bad [indicated by the fact that he possessed “knowledge of G-d” that made it impossible for him to intellectually honestly harbor a belief that no moral distinctions existed]. Furthermore, the medrash regarding his advising Pharaoh to slaughter Jewish babies and use their blood as a leprosy cure indicates that he was not really “above politics, war, racism and power struggles”.

The real curse of “badad yishkon” might be the kinds of “friends” we actually do have [e.g., Alan Keyes, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, etc] while rather prominent members of our own people who have turned on us in the name of an ostensible Universalism [e.g. Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Ilan Pappe] or a more convoluted form of “real” Judaism [Michael Lerner, Neturei Karta, Elmer Berger].

So we don’t have to necessarily go to Egypt to be in Egypt. Nowadays we have the unique situation of having both an Eretz Yisrael and an Eretz Mitzrayim. In his Haggadah, the Netziv explains the need for G-d’s rescuing the Israelites from Egypt with both a “yad chazakah” and “zeroa netuya”—there were Jews who needed to be rescued, and the Jews who needed to be forced to leave. G-d took them both out, both ways—and krias yam suf ensured no boats were needed. So when you look at the curse of Bilaam again, you can see the connection between “arami oved avi” and returning to Egypt in boats—it’s as if at the end of the tochachah G-d is threatening to completely reverse the process of krias yam suf: a shipborne return to an Egypt that won’t even give you the courtesy of re-enslaving you.

And yet—Rashi’s elucidation of “v’ein koneh” notwithstanding [they’ll kill you without bothering to enslave you]—its possible that one can find a positive message in the boat[s]: that all of us—from Neturei Karta to Noam and Naomi—will be on the boat. Certainly NOT our “friends” from EITHER side of the political fence [more likely they’ll be fighting over who gets to cut the rope]. In any case, one might do well to remember the series of statements in Baba Basra 10b regarding the notion that tzedaka performed by aku”m is reckoned to them as a CHET. One of the reasons given is that they just do it to make us look bad; I would reckon that concept can be extended to anyone who offers friendship to us pretending that there are no strings attached--when we know better.

We should always remember who our real shipmates are.

No comments: