I have been stunned by the intensity of vitriol coming from the mouths of many speakers and delegates at the Republican National Convention this week, far more than I expected.
“Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Guilty!” “Murderer!” “Lucifer!” “Lock her up!” Put her “in stripes!” She’s “a piece of garbage!” She deserves “the firing line and [to be] shot for treason.”
No one from the podium challenged any of this disgusting rhetoric. To the contrary, though not all speakers are guilty of uttering the slander, none protested and so, citing Heschel, all are responsible.
I say “J’accuse!”
Thank goodness Shabbat is coming and we Jews have a chance to withdraw from the hatred and r‘chilut to reflect on matters of soul, ethics, civility, and common decency.
This week’s Torah portion “Balak” inspired the rabbis of old to consider the impact that different leadership proclivities and visions have had in the personages of the prophets Abraham and Balaam.
Balaam was a non-Jewish prophet who blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them after Balak, the King of Moab, paid Balaam to do this on his behalf:
“Mah tovu o-ha-lecha Yaakov mish’ke-no-techa Yisrael –
How good are your tents of Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
The Pirkei Avot 5:22 notes:
“Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our ancestor, Abraham, and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Balaam. Those with a good eye (ayin tovah), a generous soul (ruach n’mu-chah) and a humble spirit (nefesh sh’la–lah) are disciples of our ancestor Abraham. Those with an evil eye (ayin ra-ah), an arrogant spirit (ruach g’vo-hah) and a greedy soul (nefesh r’chavah) are disciples of the wicked Balaam.”
On the surface, it seems that Balaam hasn’t done anything really wrong. Yet, Balaam was blinded by greed and impatient to reap his reward in cursing the Israelites.
The Midrash compares Abraham and Balaam. Though both are prophets, they differ in the way they perceive God. Abraham finds God even when hidden. Balaam can’t see God or God’s angel even when they’re standing in front of him. Abraham turns his perception into a blessing. Balaam turns his perception into a curse. Balaam’s prophetic potential is as great as Abraham’s even though Balaam sought to sell his soul to the highest bidder. Abraham never considered cursing anyone.
At Sodom and Gemorrah on behalf of the people Abraham bargained, cajoled and persuaded God to spare the community if he could find but one righteous person in it saying, “Shall not the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” (Genesis 18:25) For this, the Mishnah describes Abraham as being possessed of a “good eye” (ayin tovah). Although the Sodomites were filled with evil doing, Abraham looked for a way to ameliorate their fate and save them.
Balaam’s “bad eye” (ayin ra-ah) drew him to his own material enrichment. This prophet was corruptible and tempted by power, wealth and station. Rashi wrote that though Balaam seemed to reject silver and gold, he actually craved it.
Thus, the rabbis contrasted Balaam’s arrogant and grasping nature (ruach g’vohah) with Abraham’s generosity (ruach n’mucha). That generosity took the form of hospitality. Abraham’s tent opened to the world. He welcomed every stranger and embraced all people.
The ideal of prophetic leadership is exemplified by Abraham whose example reminds us of the leaders we need and the kind of people we ourselves ought to strive to be, especially in times such as these when blinding hatred has filled the hearts of so many millions of Americans.
We all ought to strive to be more like Abraham who resisted demonizing and dehumanizing others, whose good eye can glimpse the blessing that peace can bring, whose generous spirit can open the heart to nurture community, whose humility can enable the recognition that every human being is created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image” (Genesis 3:4).