Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

5777 Compromise: The Hallmark of a Healthy Society

As our country struggles through the dog days of democracy in distress, it is not enough to lament the loss of civility and the death of bipartisan legislation. We should also find examples of compromise and selflessness to hold up and emulate.
We see a very early example of just such compromise in our Torah portion, “Mattot” (Numbers chapter 32). It deals with the first permanent settlement of any of the tribes of Israel in what was to become their homeland.

The scene is hopefully familiar to us from Shabbat attendance and Sunday school: In the final year of the desert generation, the children of Israel have defeated Sichon, King of the Amorites, and Og, King of Bashan, and come into possession of their territory (basically, the Golan Heights and the East Bank of the Jordan River). The Israelites were bound for the West Bank of the Jordan, the Promised Land. But two and a half of the tribes, Reuven, Gad, and half the clans of Menasheh, recognized that the newly conquered territories would be ideal for the ranching that was the mainstay of their economy. They proposed to Moses that they settle there, forfeiting their claim to land west of the Jordan.

It would seem to be a “win-win”, with the remaining tribes also benefitting from the self-interest of the two and a half tribes by gaining more living space. But Moses was not happy. He had a strong sense of the centrality of Israel proper in the Jewish imagination, and he feared that the willingness to settle outside the promised borders of the land would constitute a vote of no confidence in God, Who had issued the promises. Such a vote, at the time of the scouts in the second year of the Wilderness sojourn, had led to disaster for the previous generation. Moses berated the tribal leaders.:
Here, you’ve gotten up in your fathers’ place, a group of
sinners, to add more onto the LORD’s flaring anger at
Israel. If you go back from behind Him, then He’ll add
more to leave them in the wilderness, and you’ll have
destroyed all of this people! (Numbers 32:14-15)
It is at this point that we see the maturity of the desert-raised generation. Whereas the record of the Israelites until now was one of “kvetch, kvetch, kvetch”, this time, the tribes made a meaningful counter-offer. They were not proposing to abandon their cousins from the other tribes. No; they would serve as vanguard troops, fighting alongside their kin, and not retiring to their own territory until all the people had been settled. (Numbers 32:16-19)

Moses accepted the counterproposal, albeit somewhat ungraciously. (Numbers 32:20-32). His skepticism is understandable, since the Israelites had failed time and again during his tenure as their leader, and he himself had shared in the consequences of their failure. He was doomed to die in the desert along with the Exodus generation. But having given them the appropriate conditions, and seeing them prepare to fulfill them, he then formally granted them the inheritance they sought. (Numbers 32:33)

Meaningful negotiation, including real compromise—that is how a society avoids splitting fatally, each of its factions retreating to its corner of the boxing ring and rousing only its own supporters.

America, the Bible has more to teach you than either of our political parties fully knows!

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Michael Panitz

Copyright © 2017 Temple Israel, All rights reserved.


Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

A message from Rabbi Panitz.

Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz

(Balaam blessing the people Israel. Source: “Perma-blessed, The Layman’s Bible)

Who is the most famous non-Jew (or more precisely, non-Israelite) in the Five Books of Moses? Of course, there are some well known “baddies”, such as the Pharaoh of the oppression and his successor, the Pharaoh of the Exodus. As a superb example of the narrative art of the Ancients, it ought not surprise us that the Bible contains artful and memorable sketches of numerous non-Israelite characters, from kings to bored housewives. But the most famous non-Israelite is the one whom the Bible credits with prophecy, and whose words, to this day, are recited by pious Jews upon entering a synagogue: “How good are your tents, o Jacob; your dwelling places, o Israel!” That is, of course, the prophet Balaam.
Balaam is famous for another reason. Fifty years ago, in 1967, an archaeological expedition working in Deir ‘Alla discovered a plaster inscription containing oracles attributed to Balaam ben Be’or, making him the earliest individual, Israelite or foreigner, mentioned both in the Bible and in extra-biblical archaeological sources.
In the Bible story attributed to him, albeit edited in the spirit of Moses, Balaam was the man sent to curse the Israelites and who, instead, blessed them.
It is interesting to consider the story of Balaam in the light of contemporary political realities:
At the beginning of the story, the Moabite king, Balak, sends to a neighboring people, Midian, offering an alliance against Israel. The rabbinic commentator, Rashi, observed:
But did they not always hate each other?…
However, because of their fear of Israel, they
made peace between themselves. (Rashi to Numbers 22:4)

This anticipates the challenges facing Israel even today. As is seen with terrible sadness in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the fratricidal strife within the world of the Arabs consumes the lives of countless victims, mostly civilians. This strife is a recurring feature in Arab history. After only a couple of generations, the forced unification of the Arabian tribes under Muhammad gave way to the Shi’ite- Sunni split, which has repeatedly spurred bloodshed over 13 centuries. (It is myopic folly for any American president, Democratic or Republican, to think that a people so attached to historical hatreds can be quickly redirected.) Modern conflicts, such as the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980’s, had other causes, as well, but the underlying sectarian anger has always been among the causes of killing within that civilization.
Nonetheless, the bitter truth of the old Arabic proverb remains: “I am against my brother; my brother and I, against our cousin; my brother, my cousin and I, against the world.” When the warring factions within the Arab house unite, it is often because they set aside other quarrels in order to focus on their hatred of Israel, and, let it be said, their hatred of the Jew.
All the more remarkable, then, that Balaam, hired by the joint delegation of Moab and Midian (Numbers 22:7) and sent to curse, instead declared that he would not curse Israel, for it is fundamentally blessed: key barukh hu
Who is Balaam today? Perhaps a contemporary candidate would be the Prime Minister of India, Narenda Modi. Since taking office in 2014, he has participated in a notable warming of relations with Israel. Cooperation between these two countries grows, now encompassing diplomatic, political and economic ties. Modi has resisted the fashionable route of routine and unbalanced condemnation of Israel, showing genuine political and moral courage.
It is understandable that India and Israel could come to realize the mutual advantages of developing their friendship. Both are democracies, born of the partition of British-administered colonial lands. Both have maintained pluralistic democracies, including meaningful civil rights to substantial Muslim minorities, in the face of ongoing threats from aggressive state and non-state Islamic actors.
Supporters of Israel can and should be critical of individual actions that fail to live up to the best version of the Jewish State— I will be commenting in a future column on the shameful decision of the current Israeli government to renege on its commitment to world Jewry to allow access to non-Orthodox worship at the kotel. But however critical a fair-minded critic may be, that does not extend to the delegitimization of the State of Israel, which is what Israel’s enemies continue to seek.
We need a Balaam in every generation!

Shavua Tov: A good week to all.

Rabbi Michael Panitz

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