A Very Old Tale: Balak, Anti-Semitism, and Education

As Charles Dickens famously wrote

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. (A Tale of Two Cities)

This seems like an apt description of our times today as well. It is confusing. Which narrative is it any way? Are things getting better or worse? Are we as a society advancing or regressing? Is the long arc of history bending toward justice or is the world filling like a cesspool with hate? The new Pew report came out recently. The rate of Inter-marriage is still really high AND the rate of anti-Semitism is way up. It is dizzying. Does the world want to marry or kill us?

Recently I found myself inundated with calls from people wanting to combat this new wave of anti-Semitism. They seemed to be screaming that this has got to be priority number one. Yes this is important, but is it urgent?

I was thinking about this week when reading Balak, this week’s Torah portion. Balak, the king of Moab recruits the prophet Balaam for the purpose of cursing the migrating Israelite community. As the story goes Balaam does not curse them, but instead blesses the people. It is interesting that we just accept and assume it is normal for Balak to want to curse the Israelites. We have always been perceived of as the other. Here we are migrants. In Egypt we were a potential threat to Pharaoh’s power. To Amalek and then with Haman, we were weak, vulnerable, and an easy target. Anti-Semitism is clearly not a new phenomenon.

So it is important to confront Anti-Semitism, but I think this misses the point of the Parshat Balak. Prioritizing teaching how we have been and are hated is off base. I understand that it might be seen as educational expedient, but I am less interested in communicating to another generation how Jews died, than how we lived. While it take less time it also say that being Jewish is a reaction to hate and not a proactive activity of love. We have done a great job communicating how we have been cursed, how are we doing telling another generation about the blessings of living a Jewish life? When it comes to Jewish education we have spent too much of our sacred limited time educating our youth about Anti-Semitism. Yes, they know they are coming for us, but I am afraid that with little else to keep them there when the haters come the next generation will have long ago left the city.


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