The message we learn from chapter 25 is also the primary rabbinic message of the period we’ve just entered of three weeks of mourning the destruction of the Temples. And what the rabbis express as the spiritual cause of destruction is quite accurate as a historical explanation as well. The true existential threat to the Jewish people is not an external physical threat, as that of Sichon and Og, or an external spiritual threat, as that of Bilaam. From the days of the Jews sinning in the desert in our chapter, to the Hasmonean competition which invited in the Romans, to the warring Jewish sects which instigated them, we have always been our own worst enemy and the key to our own downfall.
It’s a message that runs all through the prophets, but we ignore it today, and we do so at our own peril. Tremendous resources, in terms of money, energy and attention, are focused on external threats over which we have limited control, at the expense of our significant problems from within.
In a state founded on a socialist ethos, inspired by the vision of the prophets, the gap between the rich and the poor is among the largest in the world.
In a state founded to be the home to all Jews, enormous numbers of Jews are disenfranchised by a narrow-minded, politicized, corrupt Orthodox rabbinate.
In the state of the people of the book, parents are protesting the ‘sardine-like’ state of the classrooms, which make meaningful learning impossible.
In the state dedicated to the ingathering of the exiles, the ingathered exiles still face discrimination and racism.
As Walt Kelly wrote, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” Isaiah said it first: “Your destroyers and demolishers will come from within you” (49:17) That is both the most frightening message we learn from Bilaam, and the most empowering, because it means that our redemption is not “across the sea..but it is a thing very, very close to us.”