JAY-Z: A Balaam For Our Time

An anti-Semite walks into a bar and is about to order a drink when he sees a obviously Jewish fellow sitting quietly by himself in the corner. So he shouts over to the bartender so everyone can hear, “A round for the house, bartender, but not for that guy over there,” pointing to the Jewish guy.

The drinks are handed out, and the anti-Semite notices that the Jew is not upset. In fact, he’s smiling. Infuriated, he again calls out in a loud voice, “A round for the house, bartender, but not for that guy over there,” pointing to the Jewish guy…who just continues to smile. So the anti-Semite says to the bartender, “What’s the matter with that guy? I’ve ordered two rounds of drinks for everyone in the bar except for him, and all he does is smile and look happy. Is there something wrong with him?”

“The bartender responds. “He’s fine. Actually, he owns the bar.”

Some of you sitting here may not be aware, but the rapper Jay-Z released his latest album this past weekend. In a song called “The Story of O.J.,” he sings the following lyric:

“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit.
You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.”

So what happens when an international superstar with a massive public presence criticizes his own ethnic community’s culture as decadent, shallow, and irresponsible by holding up a classic anti-Semitic trope as an ideal? But it’s not just a classic anti-Semitic trope – the security and stability we enjoy thanks to the success of our community is something we are proud of, it’s something we are even comfortable enough to joke about.

And thank God that the American Jewish community has always been a model minority and immigrant community in this country, that we have been industrious, ambitious, education-focused and community-minded, that we have put down solid roots, played by the rules, planned for the future – and now enjoy the fruits of our labor. Just last weekend we heard from Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who represents the Dominican community of Upper Manhattan, who said very candidly, in this sanctuary, that he holds up the Jewish community as a role model for his own to follow. And yet that very success – again – fuels a classic anti-Semitic trope, hyperbolic, extreme, and linked to breathless conspiracy theories that have fueled discrimination and worse going back centuries.

I can’t help but think that this is actually a contemporary retelling of this morning’s Torah portion. We read the story of the prophet Balaam, who sets forth as a mercenary of the Moabites to curse the Israelites as they march through the wilderness. Despite several attempts, God frustrates his plan; rather than cursing the Israelites, he blesses them instead, extolling their virtues and predicting their resounding victory over his hosts, who send him back home in disgrace.

The rabbinic tradition is conflicted about the innermost character of Balaam, the gentile prophet. Some explain that Bilam was not only wicked, but cunning as well. Even as God compelled him to bless the Israelites, he chose blessings with dark undertones, blessings that could be reread as curses. For example, he declared the Israelites an “am levadad yishkon,” a nation that dwells alone. That could be a good thing – a nation that dwells alone may be independent, strong, and self-reliant – but it could also be a bad thing – a nation that dwells alone may also be isolated, lacking critical allies, vulnerable and exposed.

Even as Balaam begrudgingly blessed the people, say these rabbis, deep down he hoped that he was really cursing them as well. Therefore, despite the fact that, even in the face of considerable pressure he continued to bless the people, these rabbis call him Balaam HaRasha – Balaam the Wicked.

Other rabbis, though, are more convinced of Balaam’s sincerity. They feel that he was truly inspired to bless the Israelites in lieu of cursing them, and that his blessings came from a genuine place. Balaam, though, understood that the distance between a blessing and a curse, between an acclamation and a condemnation, is much closer than we may otherwise think – in fact, blessings and curses are often just two sides of the same coin. Even in our own lives, after all, how often are the characteristics that enable us to succeed in some areas the very roots of our failings in others? How often are our achievements and accomplishments in one place themselves the cause of challenges and frustrations in another? Certainly that is the case for the Jewish experience in America. Our community has never been as affluent and publically influential as it has been in recent years, and it is likely not a coincidence that anti-Semitic rhetoric has disturbingly reemerged across the political spectrum.

This is not Balaam the wicked, but Balaam the prophet, the seer, the perceptive one who takes in the panorama with all of its complexity and nuance – blessings and curses mixed together and co-dependent, one inextricable from the other. The rabbis cannot condemn this Balaam, but nor do they cheer him. To them, Balaam was a deeply flawed messenger delivering a mixed message.

So what then? On one hand, our tradition states unambiguously that his words rang true. In fact, some of his prophecy – the prayer Mah Tovu – found its way in our daily liturgy, and our sages debated incorporating the rest into the Shema itself. So as difficult as the character of Balaam may be to unravel, as inscrutable and confusing as his intentions are for us to decode, our tradition tells us that it is important to listen to what he says.

On the other hand, the reality is that it is not comfortable to hear an outsider speaking about us from a faraway place, whether it is a mountaintop in the Moabite wilderness or the far-away land of hip-hop music. Even if the words are meant to be complimentary – all blessings – we cannot help hear all of the dark echoes as they resound across the divide.

Perhaps, then, the ultimate lesson to learn here is not so much about Balaam himself, but about what happens when we speak about each other, instead of to each other. Balaam’s audience was not the Israelites; it was the Moabites who enlisted him, and the distrust and suspicion with which our tradition received his words – again, all blessings – speaks volumes.

The image of the man alone on top of a mountain, silhouetted by the rays of the setting sun, lifting his staff and speaking inspired words, is powerful and provocative. Recording studios are solitary, powerful places for truth-telling as well.

For all that power, though, the story of Balaam ends poorly for everyone involved. Balaam himself returns home rejected and disgraced, and his home nation is conquered by the Israelites, who themselves succumb to idolatry and immorality. The Moabites are isolated and weakened. The pronouncements of the prophet – even the blessings of the prophet – did not make anyone better, nor did they improve the world. We should consider that perhaps the truly powerful words are not broadcast nor recorded nor prophesied, but rather spoken softly but and directly, in dialogue. Only in honest and open conversation may blessings be received, differences resolved, and common hopes and aspirations shared.

delivered at
The Hampton Synagogue
Shabbat, July 8, 2017

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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