140/929 Inside and Out- Criticizing In All The Wrong Places Bamidbar 23.

The effusive praise God puts into Bilaam’s mouth in chapter 23 starkly contrasts the bitter complaints and harsh punishments we’ve read of in previous chapters.

Bilaam says: “How can I be angry when God isn’t angry?” But God has been exceedingly angry- repeatedly, violently angry.

Bilaam says: “There is no nachash (literally- a snake) in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel”, and yet we just finished reading the story of the snake whose healing properties seemed quite magical.

Bilaam says: “He has seen no iniquity in Jacob, and has seen no tiresome sin in Israel,” but God and Moshe have both complained about how tired they are of the Jews’ repeated misbehavior.

Bilaam says: “God is not a man that He should lie”- so how do we understand all these contradictions?

In Israel there’s a saying- “things you see from here, you don’t see from there.” It’s a dangerous statement, used to quell criticism by asserting that an insider can understand the reasoning for actions that outsiders tend to criticize. A similar logic is at work here, but to a different end. It’s true that criticism coming from an outsider’s perspective can be problematic, opportunistic, hypocritical, destructive. The story of Bilaam is the story of the ultimate outsider, with a well trained evil eye, a penchant for noticing the negative. There is little good that can come of this, and God won’t tolerate it.

But that doesn’t mean that criticism isn’t delivered, just that it must originate from within. This is something the Torah models consistently and boldly, and that we tend to do a terrible job at. All too often, the forces within restrain themselves from criticizing, out of fear of embarrassing the community, airing dirty laundry, or similar excuses. If only we’d be concerned not to embarrass the other when thinking of criticizing from the outside, and be brave and hard-hitting when speaking to our own communities, we’d be in much better shape.

To pluck an example from the headlines, rather than speaking of how the Reform movement “isn’t really Jewish”, or how it’s “tearing the Torah to pieces,” halachically committed Jews ought to be examining their failure to adequately engage (let alone answer) the real questions the modern age poses in a way that is compelling to all but a tiny minority of Jews seeking to live Jewish lives. An honest look in the mirror might turn our curses into blessings, as we realize that were it not for the answers offered by other denominations, many, many more souls would have lost any connection to Judaism whatsoever, a long time ago.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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