Ma tovu…. “How lovely are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places Yisrael.” These were the words of the prophet Balaam from this week’s Torah portion. He was hired to curse the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert, but blessed them instead.
I have just returned from Israel, where I was fortunate to meet in Jerusalem with high-ranking members of the Israeli Knesset and in Ramallah with the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as well as many others from virtually every side of the conversation/debate in Israel today.
While I heard many words from important members of Arab communities, some nice and some not so nice, I did not hear any that echoed Balaam’s.
It would be nice to think that Israel’s Jews and Arabs could simply admire each other’s homes and get on with their lives. But to understand the complexities of Israel today, Balaam’s message is not helpful.
Instead, embedded in the Torah portion is another passage – the story of Balaam’s ass, who sees the angel of God standing in their way, and tries three times to communicate to her master that something is wrong. Not able to see the impediment in their way, he punishes her.
It is a poignant reminder that sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us, regardless of how important it is. We need the ability to see with new eyes, from a new perspective. And quite often, we cannot do that alone; we need a guide who can help us, who can provide new insights into old problems.
It can be hard to trust other people’s judgement; it is too easy to stubbornly believe that we are right and not listen to the wisdom of others. The situation worsens when the others are the Other – people who are not “my” people, people who have a different narrative and different goals for themselves.
And yet, when two groups try to cram themselves into the same small space, each claiming it for their own, there are only two options – fight or collaborate. Collaboration is neither easy nor simple. In its own way, not much easier than war itself. It means actually hearing what the other has to say, and both sides making concessions. It means taking small steps forward and knowing that not every step will be correct. It is in fact very difficult, but it is necessary.
Ma tovu; how lovely are your dwelling places, you various peoples of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. May you be blessed with wisdom, vision, patience, understanding, and the courage to work together, despite that which would tear you apart.
I am grateful to AIEF, the charitable arm of AIPAC, for this week-long immersion in the complexities of Israel today, and will write more about my experiences and AIPAC itself in the coming weeks. R’Jennifer