Politics & Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”
Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.
Balak 5771: Naming Rights
When we dedicated that building, I was on the evening news with Brian Williams and he said to me, “How, Joe, after so many years it was called the Sears Tower, how did you get them to change the name to Willis?” And I looked into the camera and I said, “I asked.” – Joe Plumeri, CEO Willis Group Holdings
A rabbi I know notes that very few portions in the Torah are named for people. Of those, only three are named for gentiles: Noah, Yisro and this week’s episode, Balak.
Noah, we noted already, deserves this. Yisro as well, for all he did. But Balak?
An evil king bent on destroying the nascent Jewish nation who the commentaries tell us, is not a real king but rather appointed monarch by the elders in a panicked council of war after hearing of the Jewish victories over their allies. He is, the Bible notes, king, “ba’et ha’he” in this time – a temporary ruler, till the crisis passes.
But moreover, he’s just the guy that hires the guy who’s actually the central character of the whole drama. (We all say nice things about L’Enfant but we also credit George Washington with being the commander in chief of the colonial army. The victorious colonists didn’t ask Marquis de Lafayette to be their king; they asked Washington.)
Balaam is a prophet, the Talmud notes, on par with Moses. The Talmud itself compares students of Balaam to students of Abraham. Balak just gets a snooty – and fictional – French archeologist for a namesake.
Balak however, if we take a second look, is the character that makes the entire drama move. He is crowned, however reluctantly by his people, and immediately begins upgrading the defense. He sends emissaries to Balaam. Refused once, at G-d’s command, Balak doesn’t give up. When Balaam (& the Lord, ostensibly) give in and agree to curse Israel, Balak provides the evil prophet with anything he asks for to make the curse stick. His first attempt ends in failure and an outraged Balak forces Balaam to try again. And again. Striking out a third time, Balak is still looking for a way to win. He takes Balaam’s advice and dispatches an army of – well, we know what they were an army of – to tempt the Jews into sin and force Divine retribution.
Left to his own devices, Balaam wouldn’t have made it past the first request. It was Balak, who from the background animated all that occurred.
All too often, in politics, we look to the podium or to the press release to see who’s “leading.” Equally often, its not who we’d think by turning on cable news or clicking on Drudge (or even Politico). Often, there are workhorses, either elected officials themselves or staff who do the real work – generate the real ideas, and ensure the cogs of government actually run.
In life too, there’s people who give up at the first difficulty. And there are those who keep pushing. I’m not suggesting we’d want to be either Balaam or Balak, but by naming the portion for him, the Jewish tradition is cluing us in to who we can learn a real lesson from and what that lesson is.
Words to consider, ideas to ponder — politics & the parsha.