Sign In Forgot Password

Balak:  June 30, 2018

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The line between church and state has always been a rather fluid line. I could easily go back to the Middle Ages to see how religious leaders basically blackmailed the political leadership to do as they demanded lest the political leadership be denied divine favor. But the reality is that political leaders and religious leaders have always tried to maintain a connection between the religious and political worlds.

In our Parsha, Balak, the king and political leader of the Moabites, finds he has a problem with a large collection of refugees from Egypt on his border. Some other nations, who have ethnic ties to the refugees, have refused to let these people enter their land and a mere show of force was enough to get them to turn away. But the last nation to do that, the Ammonites, who had no ethnic ties to the refugees, engaged this band of refugees in battle and were defeated so badly that a significant part of the Ammonite/Moabite border is now occupied territory. Balak thinks he has the resources to defeat this large band of refugees, but he is unsure. Since the Israelite refugees are united by religion, Balak decides to turn the gods against them. He attempts to hire, Balaam, a major religious leader, to come and curse the People of Israel.

If you follow the story (and we will leave aside the incident with the talking donkey) Balaam does not want the job. From his point of view, it is a no-win situation. Sure, he is promised great wealth if his curse works and Moab is victorious, but Balaam would be entering a war between faiths, between the gods of Moav and the God of Israel. As a religious leader that is not a place he wants to be. It is only the insistence by Balak that forces him to come to the border and he warns the king that God may not give the king the curse that the king is looking for. Balak is trying to force the hand of God through magic, and this is something way, way beyond the sleight of hand that is magic.

I don’t know what Balaam saw when he looked down from the mountains upon the Israelite camp. But what he saw evoked blessing, not curses. Balak, the king and political leader of Moav, was frustrated in his quest for an advantage over Israel and had to look beyond a religious approach to defeat the people on his border that he feared.

To say that there is a lesson here for our country is pretty obvious. We too are trying to deal with refugees on our border. They are not going to enter into battle with us but nevertheless they seek entry into our land. They are fleeing political, economic and criminal violence in their countries and many are only seeking to find a safe place to raise a family. They are asking, not demanding, to enter our country. It is our own fears as we face them at the border that have created the crisis. Every point of data says that they will be good residents of our country, filling in needed jobs that are open because we don’t have enough citizens to fill them all. They pay taxes and obey the laws of the land.

And yet we are the ones that question their legitimacy; we are the ones that question their purpose in wanting to pass our border. We have been given imaginary fears to keep them away and to justify harsh treatment at the border. And yes, there have been officials of our country who have tried to use religious values and quotations to indicate that turning them away would reflect proper American religious values.

Good people can stand on different sides of the immigration debate and have important things to say. Who is really eligible for asylum?  What should be the deterrent for those who cross the border in an illegal crossing? How long should an immigrant have to wait before being granted entry? How can we tell who is a danger to our country without illegal racial and religious profiling? Beyond the political differences, there are also religious communities that have different approaches to how immigration issues should be addressed.

But if this administration was looking for support from religious leadership for its “zero tolerance” policy for illegal immigration, a policy that in the weird world of immigration law demanded that parents be separated from their children, some of whom were under a year old, there was not one religious leader who was willing to stand in that space. Virtually every religious leader from virtually every major faith group in this country could not support a policy that required the separation of parents and young children. All the more so when it was discovered that the border agencies had no plan in place to reunite the parents and children after their petition for asylum was resolved.

It only took a week for the administration to back down from this policy and only another week before a judge demanded that the families be reunited within 30 days, 15 for the youngest children. It was a policy that angered so many people that today, in cities all across the country, there are protests to show this Administration that this kind of a policy is never moral or ethical by any religious standard. Our government was looking for blessings for its policy, and all it got was curses.

We have been down this path before. Our law enforcement officials have, from time to time, demanded “zero tolerance” policies in the name of law and order. This approach insists that we have laws, and people who break the laws must be punished. “Break the law, go to jail”. It is a simple equation, and yet, every time it has been tried, it turns out to have immoral consequences. We saw it in the war on drugs where courts were so tied up with minor cases of abuse and the jails so full of small time criminals that there was no time or funding available to go after the leaders of the cartels who were responsible for bringing drugs into our country. The fact that blacks were more likely to end up in jail during this war on drugs, only showed the racist feelings behind it.

Then there is the zero-tolerance policy about weapons in schools. While safety of students is paramount, suddenly elementary age students, who unwittingly brought dangerous weapons into school were getting felonies on their police records. Recently a student who brought a clock as part of a science fair project to school was arrested on suspicion of bringing a bomb to school.

The reason zero-tolerance policies don’t work is because they seek to bypass the courts. The reason that courts are separate from law enforcement is because enforcing laws is NEVER simple or easy. The reason we all deserve our day in court is because life is messy and there is plenty of room for mistakes to be made, for misunderstandings and for simple bigotry to warp and distort the enforcement of our laws. Just because something looks bad, does not make it illegal and thus demand that we “throw the book” at the perpetrator. Judaism, for centuries, believed in forgiveness and Jewish courts believed that all people were innocent until proven guilty. Zero-tolerance has us assign guilt too quickly and leaves no room for mercy. Is it any wonder that every major faith community could not bless what happened on the border?

When it come to politics, God is not on one side or the other, no matter what a political leader might say. The Prophet Micha tells us in our haftara that God commands us every day to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  Law enforcement is justice without mercy. Zero-tolerance is justice without humility. It the world of religion we quickly join in protests where there is justice without mercy or humility. Our faith does not demand that we live in fear of others. We trust in God that everyone is not out to get us. We trust in God that people have a basic humanity and there is no single group designated by religion, sex, race, sexual orientation or culture that is built on immorality. It is justice without mercy and humility that causes human beings to abandon their good humanity and begin to justify evil.

If Balaam were to stand on our border, overlooking the refugees seeking to enter, he would not curse them, he would bless them. He would understand the blessing they can be for our country. He would understand, in a way that King Balak could not, that “these people” are exactly what our nation needs to continue as a strong and prosperous nation. If we can stop hating them, they could be just what we need to increase the blessings of God for us all. It is time we all stop looking across the border to ignite our fears and start looking into our own hearts to root out the evil there that causes us to be afraid.

May God give us the wisdom to find love in our hearts and may God open our hands to the strangers so that they might be a blessing to us, to our country and to the world. As we say …. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 30, 2018.

Fri, May 24 2019 19 Iyyar 5779