, , , ,

 “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places Yisrael.” These were the words of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam from last week’s Torah portion. He was hired to curse the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert, but eventually he blessed them instead.

It’s a lovely sentiment, traditionally sung in Hebrew at the beginning of morning synagogue services. But there’s another message embedded in Balaam’s blessing that we tend to overlook: “From the tops of crags I see them, from the hills I gaze down: A people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 23:9)

Balaam saw a people who deserved to be blessed, and who were alone in the world. They were alone because they were different; fleeing from slavery and persecution, they were a wandering people without a home, and without a visible God. That last part – the singular God whom no one could see – made them both strange and frightening.

In a very real sense, the Jewish people are still seen as alone, both by ourselves and others. Jews here in the U.S. feel comfortable about being part of our local communities. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t worry, that we aren’t hyper-sensitive to slurs and antisemitic tropes. We are more than just a minority; we are the smallest of minorities. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims are each far larger communities than we are.

We are more than just a minority; we are the smallest of minorities.

Fear of the Other has led some to hate us. This is as true today as it was in 1492 and 1938, although today the governments of the various nations have yet to turn on us. But vile hate groups and loathsome individuals certainly have, and do. It’s why my congregation has armed security guards at all of our services, why our signs use initials rather than our congregation’s full name, and why most American Jews keep their religious background, much less their beliefs, to themselves.

 Why is it that Jews are so often targeted? One would think that we’re small enough to be safely hidden, to be ignored by the larger community. The ancient hatreds promulgated by the Catholic church have been set aside by the church, although these prejudices linger. Some would have you believe that it is because we are overachievers, a nation of people who rise to the top in science, politics, literature and more. 

 I think the true reason is in one word that I just used: We are a nation. We are a people, sometimes divided by geography, often by type of religious practice, and worldwide by native tongue, who nevertheless share a sense of peoplehood that other minorities do not. Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, contended that Judaism is a unifying and creative force, held together by its language and the cultural and historical character of the religion, as well as theological doctrine.

 There is another message embedded in the story of Balaam that can help us understand why Jews are seen as separate, different. It is the story of his trusted steed, a female ass who was able to see something that he could not, an angel with a fiery sword. It blocked their path, and twice the ass tried to evade the angel, but the third time it blocked her way she simply sat down with her rider still astride.

 Balaam in his blindness became furious at the animal and beat her. It was only when the ass magically spoke to him that Balaam’s eyes were opened to the truth. 

 The story is a poignant reminder that sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us, regardless of how important it is. And sometimes when that happens we humans act out of anger and frustration, just as Balaam did.

For many Americans, Jews are quite literally mysterious, the unknown, the Other. We comprise only 2.4% of Americans, and people who live outside of major urban areas can live their entire lives without ever meeting a Jewish person. When things go awry for them, it is easy to target a mysterious, almost mythical, group like “the Jews.”

 But the truth of our position in the American landscape is more complicated than simply “them against us.” When we blind ourselves to the complexities of our relationship with other Americans, especially with other minorities or people from isolated communities, we limit our ability to stand up for ourselves and for others. 

 Our job as American Jews is to speak out, clearly and calmly, to tell our story and to firmly establish our right to be here, just like everyone else. We must be open-minded and open-hearted, while at the same time accepting that we are not universally beloved. 

 The people who choose to hate us are like Balaam, blind to the truths around them, blind to the shared humanity of all peoples. It is more than likely that we may not be able to teach them how to be open-minded and open-hearted. 

This week begins a period known as the Three Weeks, leading up to the ninth day of the month of Av, the date that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. It is a time of semi-mourning for the entire Jewish community. But here’s the thing. That date represents more than merely a low point. It begins a 49-day period that leads to Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year. It is a time of growing light and strength, as we move from the lowest communal point to the highest.

We are expected to be a light unto the nations, showing by our interactions with the greater community that Jews are a blessing. Perhaps, like Balaam, their eyes will someday be opened. And if not? Our tradition asks us to rise to the occasion, to be our best selves, reach for the highest ideal, and repair the world for the sake of all.