By Bob Braun, 5775
As a child of the 60’s, television had a great impact on my life. I’m not sure that my children, who grew up with beautiful, high definition color televisions, vcrs and cable or satellite TV, recognize the impact that a 13 inch black and white TV had on those in my generation.
Part of the reason is that there wasn’t a lot of TV – a few channels, none of them 24 hours, and none of them solely sports. But part of the reasons was that I wasn’t allowed to watch most of it.
But one of the shows we were allowed to watch – and believe me, I have no idea why – was a particularly poignant and realistic view of modern suburban life. And that show was “Mr. Ed.”
It is a somewhat sad fact that in this crowd, there may be no one who does not remember Mr. Ed, but to recap for those who were incarcerated or not born, Mister Ed was a talking palomino, played by gelding Bamboo Harvester and voiced by former Western film actor Allan Lane. Many of the program’s story lines follow from Mister Ed’s tendency to talk only to his owner, Wilbur Post, and Mr. Ed’s skills as a troublemaker.
I lived a somewhat sheltered childhood, and it seemed rather plausible that your average architect would own a horse, and that the horse would talk. And I attribute part of that naivete to this parasha which, of course, features Balaam’s talking donkey. After all, if a donkey could talk in the Torah, who’s to say a horse could not on national television?
Now, all this is pleasant, and it certainly helps fill up the few minutes I will be annoying you, but in all seriousness, this parasha has a lot to do with television, and with all literary endeavor. Because what they do, and what this parasha does, is to show us not how we live, but the lives of others – which, I might mention, is a wonderful German movie that won the Academy Award a few years back.
Parashat Balak, until the very end – which itself is a prelude to next week’s parasha, at which time Joel Grossman will give a much more enlightening drasha – is not about Jews. It is about our enemies, or those who wish to be our enemies, or conceive of us as their enemies. Like a television show, or a play or novel, we find ourselves eavesdropping on their affairs, seeing how we appear in their eyes, what fears and emotions and actions we stir in them. We are part of the story, we are the object of the story, but we are not the story.
This Parasha is one of the few that allows us to see ourselves as others see us, and we are seen in an unflattering and threatening light – a people that covers the earth and that threatens to consume Balak and his country like an ox licks up the grass in a field.
What is Balak’s proof for this? How does Balak perceive us as a threat? The story is told in last week’s parasha that we asked – politely, I assume – for safe passage through Amorite territory, and we were turned back and attacked, and in self-defense, we destroyed the Amorites. But Balak only heard, or only chose to hear, the last part of the story. Balak twists the facts to feed his fears and emotions.
Our perception of ourselves and of others defines our relationships and our actions. We all know that we, and others, shade facts, and sometimes change facts entirely, to meet our needs and justify ourselves, whether to others or to ourselves. Every day, we see seemingly unassailable proof discarded because it doesn’t support a positions. I have an unholy trinity of news channels on my satellite radio – CNN, Fox and MSNBC, and I will, from time to time, rotate through them, just to find out how many different ways the same “facts” can be spun into entirely different stories. The facts, seemingly unassailable, can change. As Senator Sam Ervin once told my law school class, that to be a good lawyer, you had to salt down the facts, because the law was going to keep – the facts were going to change.
At this point, we should recall that Balak is not the only character, or people, in the Torah that is guilty of twisting the facts. Consider Shlach L’cha, just a few weeks ago, when the spies, all men of importance and character, scouted out the land and the inhabitants of Israel. And what did the spies say – “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants, and we looked like grasshopers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” This is matched by Balak’s hyperbole, when he says that “this people who came out of Egypt hides the earth from view.”
The consequences of misperception, of misinterpretation, was tragic for us – the entire generation that was redeemed out of slavery from Egypt died in the desert. And as far as Balak? Well, he slips off into obscurity; his function seems to have been to serve as Balaam’s entry into the narrative, and then Balaam’s foil, and then to disappear.
This parasha stands out from others – there are only two Torah portions named after non-Jews (3, if you count Noah), and this is the only parasha named after someone generally considered evil. Even more, the Gemorah give this parasha, along with Job and Dvarim, the almost singular importance of having been inscribed by Moshe Rabbeinu – there is something more here than a cute story about a talking donkey.
I think there is another lesson, and that is to remind us of the risk in substituting reality with an interpretation of reality. Just as Balaam, try as he might, cannot curse the Jews when God intends us to be blessed, facts can’t be changed quite so easily. Our interpretation does not change reality. God’s punishment of the generation of the desert reminds us that we cannot play so fast and loose with facts. Balak can ask, can demand Balaam to curse the Jews, but God’s substitution of blessings for Balaam’s curses stands. We are bound by proof.
We ourselves substitute perception for fact in many ways, large and small. A fender bender on the way to work becomes a major accident, excusing our tardiness. A non-committal nod becomes affirmative proof that you agreed with my position. Five minutes on the elliptical becomes a full workout. To paraphrase The Big Chill, rationalization is more important than sex – have you ever gone a full day without a rationalization?
But facts in large ways. Holocaust deniers rob us of history, communists revise the past to suit their current needs – we, ourselves, clothe the past to justify the present. Twisting the facts leads to war, to persecution, to violence and destruction. How often has Balak’s rationale been used to justify our persecution? And how often have we used, or misused, facts to justify unjust actions?
It is tempting to conform the facts to our pre-existing beliefs, but the truth, if there is a truth, is that we should do the opposite – we should seek to form our views from the facts. This is painful news when our sources of information are highly skewed to support the positions of readers, listeners and viewers, but we should recognize that we are an elite – we are an educated, diverse community that recognizes the value of beliefs and opinions contrary to our own. We should do no less with the truth.
Shabbat Shalom, and a happy independence day.