We are living in a time of great fear, and we see around us much of that fear turning into hatred. Not only has anti-Semitism been on the rise, but all other forms of hatred and bigotry as well. The questions we must ask are, “How did this fear begin?” and “How do we get rid of it?”
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (1195-1270), also known as Nachmanides and Ramban, has a fascinating insight into a verse in our Torah portion that could have been easily overlooked.
In Parshat Balak, Chapter 22, verse four, we read the following: “And Balak, the son of Zippor, was king at that time.” Ramban asks why the phrase “at that time” was used. Would it not have been easier to simply state, “And Balak, the son of Zippor, was king?”
The answer Ramban gave was that the phrase emphasized the power that Balak had at that moment in history. He was a courageous king who had conquered many people, but it was of a small, nomadic group of ex-slaves that he was scared.
Balak would neither be the first nor last man of power to fear the Israelites. Very often, when we speak of anti-Semitism, we ask from where all this hatred comes? But perhaps Ramban is teaching us that this is not the correct question. The correct question is, from where does all this fear come?
Hatred only ends as hatred. It is birthed in fear — fear of the unknown, fear of the other. We are living in a time of great fear, and we see around us much of that fear turning into hatred. Not only has anti-Semitism been on the rise, but all other forms of hatred and bigotry as well. The questions we must ask are, “How did this fear begin?” and “How do we get rid of it?”
I am going to answer the second question first, for reasons that will be explained below. The answer to the second question is given in our parasha. When Balak sends the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam informs the king that he can only say the words God has put into his mouth. He doesn’t just go and observe the Israelites — he observes them from every possible angle.
And yet, he can say nothing but good things. His blessings are so profound that one of them constitutes the prayer one is supposed to say when entering a synagogue — “Mah tovu ohalechah, Yaakov, mishke-notechah Yisroel.” “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”
Balaam was able to look at the Israelites clearly, without prejudice. He was able to see them as they truly were — not a threat to Moab, but a people trying to get to their own land. Sadly, it is sometimes extremely difficult to cast aside our presumptions about others and see them for who they truly are, but that is the only way to conquer our fears.
The fact is that we all have prejudices, for prejudice is an emotional reaction, not an intellectual one, and can be combated by our minds. If we can internalize the concept that we were created B’tzelem elohim — in God’s image — and truly look for the divine spark in each other, we can conquer the fear that causes prejudice.
The first question is also answered in our parasha. Balak’s fear — as indeed all of our fears — comes from the unknown. I answered the other question first because we all know this. We all know that our fears and our prejudices spring from the unknown, from that which is different, so why ask the question at all? Because, as Balaam shows us, it is not just about learning to understand the unknown, but embracing it.
Balaam was not only able to see that the Israelites were no threat, but by leaving his words and his heart open to God, he was able to see the essential goodness of the Israelites, as well.
When we are truly able to learn from that which makes us afraid, only then can we grow. Many years ago, I was part of an interfaith group in Orlando, Fla. It was, quite honestly, one of the most frustrating moments of my career.
The reason behind this frustration was that people were too polite. Instead of discussing — and learning from — our differences, all we talked about were topics upon which we agreed. This allowed for no growth, no depth and no movement. We were too afraid to embrace that which was different.
Lord Byron wrote, “Those who will not reason are bigots, those who cannot are fools, and those who dare not are slaves.” Sadly, there will always be a lot of people out there who fall into those three categories. But, as Jews, if we truly believe in repairing the world, then it is our job to fight our fears and prejudices with our intellect, embrace those who are different and encourage others to do the same.
Rabbi Daniel Wolpe is an interim rabbi at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.