One of the kittens that I fostered this summer was extremely aggressive. She would hiss and spit anytime I walked into the room and would bat at my hand — claws out — when I went to pet any of her littermates. I could only pick her up if she was wrapped in a towel, and even then would have to be careful not to get scratched or bitten. I quickly realized, though, that she was not actually a mean kitten. She was simply terrified and would lash out when she was scared, whether or not she was in any danger.
Balak, in this week’s parshat, reacts similarly. He’s seen the strength of the Israelites against nations that oppose them (at the end of last week’s parshat, they decimate the Amorite territories of Kings Sihon and Og after the kings send out attack forces to prevent the Israelites from passing through their land), he’s terrified of their massive numbers, and he knows that attacking them directly will lead to his destruction. So he tries to destroy the Israelites in a more roundabout way — by hiring a professional prophet/magician, Bilaam, to curse them. Despite multiple attempts to curse the Israelites, Bilaam is only able to bless them. And by the end, he ends up cursing the Moabites — Balak’s people — with their own destruction.
hat Balak doesn’t realize is that the Israelites have no reason to attack him or his people. In fact, they didn’t plan to engage with the Moabites at all or the Amorites previously. All they want is to pass through these territories on their journey to the Promised Land. Because Balak reacts through fear, he’s completely unable to see that his attempts to harm the Israelites will result in his own destruction.
I see the same thing happening in our country. We have people at our borders fleeing their own Mitzrayim, their own versions of Egypt, and people who fled years ago and found hope and promise here. Instead of granting them safe passage on their journeys or letting them find refuge in our country, fear has led our government and its agencies to lock them up.
Whatever their reasons for coming to America, whatever threat to our country they might bring, we cannot let our fear overcome compassion, humanity and justice. Standing aside as people — adults and children — are put in inhumane conditions because they’ve sought refuge in a country that wants to bar their entry brings the curse of injustice to us, not to them. Standing aside as government agencies try to take our undocumented neighbors away brings the curse of injustice to us, not to them. Standing aside as families are broken apart and separated in workplace raids — where employers have taken advantage of their undocumented workers but it’s the workers who are arrested and processed for deportation — brings the curse of injustice to us, not to them.
Unlike my foster kitten, we have the ability to understand our fears and respond thoughtfully instead of lashing out. So when we see our leaders trying to bring harm to others as a form of self-protection, we have the responsibility to stand up and remind them that their fear-based actions and policies will ultimately bring the curse of injustice to us, hurting us, the very people they are trying to protect. And if we stand up, we can turn this curse into a blessing. pjc
Rabbi Keren Gorban is associate rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.