This is the sermon I delivered at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor, MI this past Shabbat. Shabbat Balak, July 23, 2016
When we consider the blessing offered by Bilaam, we immediately think of the verse: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael: How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!
However, that is not the only thing that he said. In fact, Bilaam offers 3 blessings to the people, each quite lengthy. Balak keeps schlepping him from one place to the other in the hopes that he will eventually curse the people, something that he never does.
Some of the lines uttered by Bilaam are clear and could not be understood in any way but as a blessing. But, there is at least one line in his “blessings” which pose a difficulty for me. I hear in this line a negative rather than a positive.
Bilaam says: Kee mayrosh tzurim erenu umigivaot ashurenu: As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights. Hen am livadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav: There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Bilaam intended by this statement but reading it as a blessing would lead one to, as the Etz Hayim hummash says, conclude that he meant that they were a people who lived in a secure place with a fate not subject to the whim of other nations.
The midrashic commentary in Etz Hayim delves into this verse a bit further and considers the relationship of the Jewish people with others in the world. The commentary points out that some Jews see our survival as a people stemming from our ability to set ourselves apart from those who were around us. In fact, there are those who believe that rejection of our equality in society is sometimes a positive development, keeping us separate from others. If we were to become too accepted, we would lose our uniqueness and our reason for existence.
The commentary then goes on to refer to Zionism and points out that many anti-Zionists based their opposition to a Jewish state on the idea that we would become too much like the other nations if we had to engage in politics on a world stage. The lack of a state enabled Jews to remain separate.
And yet, many Zionists believe exactly the opposite. Many believe the creation of a state in fact allows Jews to do what Bilaam suggested: to be a nation apart. Surrounding ourselves with other Jews and not having to be concerned about others is for some the goal of the state. I have on occasion shared with you my experience at Bet Hatefutsot, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv in 1979 when I heard in a recording explaining one of the exhibits: “Here was a people who were redeemed from Egypt only wanting to be left alone”. I cringed at that because it wasn’t my experience growing up and not what I envision Judaism to be. I don’t see separation from the rest of the world as a blessing but rather as an inappropriate goal for our people. I still believe that without question.
The point is that what sounds like a blessing to one person: “a people remaining separate” can sound like a curse to another based upon his or her experience.
Words have power and they are not always heard the way we intend them to be heard.
In everyday conversation, we must try as diligently as possible to anticipate how others around us will hear our words and we must take care to be sensitive to how we speak. This isn’t a matter of being “politically correct”. It is a matter of proper, respectful behavior.
We don’t always get it right. God only knows how many times I have said things that were not heard the way I intended them because I was either insensitive to or ignorant of the way that people reacted to those words. We have to try but we can’t expect to be perfect.
But, in situations where the audience is larger than the average, when people are hanging on every word, and where words are considered far in advance, it is absolutely incumbent on an individual to do everything he or she can to choose words carefully. If the wrong words are used, words which are insensitive or divisive, it is legitimate to wonder whether that meaning was intentional.
What you heard on Thursday night is wrong. We absolutely can talk about political issues from the pulpit. We just can’t endorse a particular candidate.
We can’t endorse candidates but we can certainly talk about words that are said and there Were plenty of words said in Cleveland that beg to be commented on. I could speak about the exclusively Christian rhetoric of the invocation and how I, as a Jew felt excluded. I could speak about the excessive name calling which, while it has always been part of our presidential campaigns, seems to have gone far over the top.
Instead, I want to speak about one simple three word phrase which caused me to gasp when I heard it, and I thought I had heard it all over the past few months. It’s just one example to be sure but as it was emphasized over and over again on Thursday evening, I believe it is critical to point out the impact of these words.
In introducing his vice presidential choice and several times on Thursday evening, Donald Trump boasted that his campaign would be about law and order. Law and Order.
On the surface, these words are positive. We all want to live in a country where people observe the laws of the land and where there is order rather than chaos. And, we understand where this is coming from. The horrendous assaults on law enforcement officers in this country are unspeakably horrible and totally and completely unjustifiable. Those who protect our safety deserve our support, our protection and our concern. Yes, law and order sounds like a blessing.
But, when viewed in historical context, the words “law and order” carry ominous weight for many.
In her outstanding and groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow the author Michelle Alexander writes: ““The rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern States to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely ‘rewarding lawbreakers.’ For more than a decade – from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s – conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime.”
The author explains that these three words: law and order, are easily heard as an expression in opposition to those who have gathered, largely peacefully, to express justified concern about the shooting of African American men by police in so many instances in recent years and other examples of racism.
I hear these words not only as a call opposing such protests but as a dismissal of the legitimate concerns of so many.
These words have been used as code words for racism and division in our nation. Perhaps Mr. Trump did not intend to imply this just as perhaps he didn’t intend to imply anti-Semitism with his use of the phrase “America First” or the tweet featuring a 6 pointed star and lots of money. But, words have power and unlike in everyday conversation, there is no excuse for a presidential candidate to use words and images which are heard or seen by many in a negative light. And, when combined with other statements such as a call for a ban on Muslims entering the country or the statements about Mexican-Americans and immigrants, the choice of words seems more intentional.
Words have power. This past Thursday night, at a gathering at Eastern Michigan University, hundreds of community members stood shoulder to shoulder and face to face with law enforcement officials to reaffirm the commitment in this community to work together to address racial issues involved in law enforcement. It was a healthy, frank and productive gathering with many critical issues and many different points of view expressed. I was honored to speak at this program and to experience an open and honest discussion on the serious issues of race and law enforcement.
The words we use matter and are heard differently by different people.
We, as Americans, must make every effort to use words which inspire us to come together, not be inspired to live as a “people apart”, hiding behind walls as our divisions increase in our community and our world.
We must use words which unite not divide.