Shia Altman
Shia Altman

Jew hatred and self-hatred from biblical times to the present — what we learn from Parshat Balak

This week’s Parsha, Torah reading, is Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Balak was the king of Moab and he was not excited in the very least that the Children of Israel were at his doorstep as they were about to enter what was then known as the Land of Canaan. So he conspired to do something about it.

Israel was now a large nation, and the news had spread that it had a mighty God who led the battles against any enemies, from the once powerful Egyptians – who were humiliated in more than one way, to other peoples nearby Moab which were run over by the advancing Jews. Balak, figuring that conventional war would not work, looked to hire a non-Jewish prophet named Bil’am (Balaam) to curse the Jews thinking, hoping, a spiritual attack on a spiritual people would do the trick.

Long story short, Bil’am tried three times to curse Israel, but God would not allow it, and on all three occasions, the hapless prophet-for-hire ends up blessing Israel instead of cursing it, frustrating Balak. Oh well.

Among Bil’am’s words were, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” And ironically, these pleasant words forced upon the repulsive prophet’s mouth have been used throughout the generations by the people he hated even more than Balak, as Jews enter a synagogue for prayer. Oh well, again.

How do we know that Bil’am hated the Jews more than Balak?

Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, quoting from the Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries) noted that Balak said to Bil’am, “So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.” (ibid., 22:6)

Bil’am made a slight change and told God that Balak said the following, “Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the ‘eye’ of the earth. Come and curse them for me, perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them out.” (ibid., 22:11) Balak wanted Israel driven out of the area. Bil’am speaks of “driving them out,” period. Out of everywhere.

At the end of the Torah reading, some of the people committed prostitution and idol worship, and one audacious man had the unmitigated gall to bring a Moabite woman with him to commit his sinful crimes right in front of Moshe (Moses). In an act of zealotry for God, both were then killed by Pinchas, Aharon’s (Aaron’s) grandson.

Hatred and more hatred. And even self-hatred. The Jewish people have suffered anti-Semitism from when they became a people back in ancient times in Egypt. Non-stop throughout the centuries, it has been never-ending. And it may never end, sadly. Amalek, a brazen and cowardly bully of a nation that attacked Israel after the miracle of the Red Sea, has become a symbolic representation of the Jewish people’s enemies, and Moshe did say in Exodus 17:16, “…the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

As we have seen with Balak and Bil’am, it wasn’t just hatred for Israel, but the degree of hatred. Balak wanted the Jews away from the land they were promised by God; this was not enough for Bil’am who wanted the Jews annihilated completely.

It is well known to those familiar with the Holocaust that there were Nazi collaborators whose viciousness towards the Jews was so heinous, even some of the Nazis were surprised.

From the Bible to the present day, we have battled hatred against us and those who aspired to, and achieved, a greater level of loathing for us, a people whose crime was then, and still is, simple existence. Amalek, Bil’am, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions, the organized murder of millions, Islamic and Palestinian terrorism, and more. And sadly, one of the worst kinds of enmity, self-hatred.

A man committed sins right in front of Moshe. It was one thing to transgress, but quite another to do it so brazenly and publicly. After all that had been witnessed, after all that God had done for His people, how could this happen? How could someone, anyone, dare to rebel in such a fashion?

When I first studied this part of the Torah, I could not comprehend what had happened. Sure, there are many examples in the Torah of Israel’s mistakes and sins, and even rebellions, and yes, after amazing miracles, and I always wondered how could they do this? And I have looked for and been taught the answers. But this singular act of defiance – and that is what it was by the manner in which it was done, made me shake my head.

As I got older, I understood. I didn’t like it, but I understood. Even long ago in ancient biblical times, our people had amongst them the self-hating Jew. Some Israelite rebels were jealous and wanted to be the ones to lead the service to God. Others were spiritually lost, or hungry or thirsty. All paid a heavy price.

But for someone to go in front of Moshe and the people right at the center of the camp where the holy Tabernacle stood, and commit such sinful misconduct? What chutzpah! I think there must have been more to the story. I think the man was not simply a fool, but someone who hated his faith, and so, he had no qualms acting the fool in front of the leader of the people and directly in front of God.

Those who are part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and related and associated groups, state they are not anti-Semitic, not against Jews per se, or the Jewish faith, but despise how many adherents practice Judaism vis a vis Israel, and specifically Zionism.

Recently, we heard the same from a lesbian group who ejected two rally/march attendees because they carried Rainbow flags with Star of David on them. Jews were among those who confronted the attendees. The examples of anti-Zionism not being anti-Semitism, when it truly is, abound, from academia to products and services.

In November of 2015, two BDS supporters took their protest against Israel right to one of the holiest places on earth for Jews, in fact, the holiest place where Jewish prayer is allowed, and of course, I speak of the Western Wall. Please click here to see the pictures; it is worth a look. What chutzpah!

Now why would they do that there of all places? If “anti-Zionists” respected the faith as they say they do, why stand right in front of the Western Wall, dressed as they were, holding up BDS signs? It is because they hate their faith, and have no respect for it, and they hate their place within their religion. When I saw that, I was reminded of the man who went before Moshe and God to defiantly sin.

This week’s Parsha, Balak, teaches us there will always be those who wish to do us harm, not just physically, but spiritually. And it teaches us we will have our own who hate what they are and who push past the boundaries of decent behavior to try to embarrass and weaken their own people. Also, and very importantly, the Torah reading tells us that we will prevail, spiritually and physically. We will be blessed, and we will be resolute to fight back and defend ourselves, our people, our land, and so, our faith.

Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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