July 9, 1998
Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
The Moabites of Hollywood
By Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Been to the movies this summer? There's "Armageddon," in which a Texas-sized asteroid hurtling toward Earth threatens all life on this planet. "Deep Impact" features two menacing asteroids. In "Godzilla," errant nuclear testing generates a lizard the size of the Statue of Liberty that devours much of New York. "The Truman Show" is about a man held captive in a life-long TV show. "The X-Files" is about a wide-spread, pernicious government conspiracy that threatens our future. And, finally, there's "Titanic."
Is there a message here, among these films?
Film is our most original and powerful cultural expression. Popular film functions as the collective subconscious -- the dream world -- of American culture.
These movies all reflect a sense of the futility of human aspiration and human action. Size matters. And our problems are so much bigger than our ability to cope. Catastrophe looms. Have we the tools to meet the impending crises of environmental degradation, population explosion, nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, ethnic and racial slaughter? With a political system frozen in place, the news media fixated on Monica Lewinsky's bedtime reading, a coarsening public culture that's turning steadily toward Jerry Springer and Howard Stern, and all our computers threatening to crash on Jan. 1, 2000, one can understand where a sense of futility might come from. Ancient Athens fell, according to historian Gilbert Murray, not because of conquest but because, at the height of its power, it developed a collective "loss of nerve."
The Torah portion we read this week is about a confrontation of cultures. The Torah this week breaks the narrative flow that describes the desert journey of the Israelites, and takes us to Moab, one of the nations in Israel's path.
Balak, the king of Moab, is the quintessential pagan. He believes in the multitiered cosmology of paganism. On the lowest level: human beings -- pitifully weak and vulnerable. Above rule: the gods, who control the forces of nature and live out their innumerable days in petty rivalry, quenching their desires with capricious acts of cruelty toward humankind. Above the gods, there is yet another level -- the mysterious forces of ultimate fate. It is a world of ultimate hopelessness, of forces beyond our understanding and beyond our control, which destroy every human project and frustrate every human dream. The only chance human beings have of shaping their own destiny is to employ magic -- using secrets of the upper powers to manipulate the gods, forcing them to do human bidding. Magic is a form of slavery that confirms a sense of human powerlessness in the face of mysterious forces of destiny. And magic is as unstable and uncontrollable as the gods it purports to influence. The wizard Balaam, sent to curse the Israelites, instead offers them words of blessing.
Into this pagan world came a new idea: Israelite monotheism. The world is created by a God who invites human beings to become partners in its creation. The world is good; it supports human aspirations. The God of the history takes us out of bondage, empowering us to shape our own destiny, to seek the Promised Land with divine gifts of intelligence, conscience and imagination. This is an ethic of human power and human dignity.
Unlike Moab, the Israelites are not stuck by a belief in a world of vicious gods and unfathomable fates. Israel moves through the desert, guided by an ancient promise of freedom. And unlike Moab, Israel doesn't attempt to manipulate God's will through acts of magic. Instead, we pray, cultivating the divine powers within us to carry out God's dreams for a world of wholeness.
The Israelite belief in the goodness of this world has kept us in existence these past 3,000 years. But what became of the Moabites? The majority were no doubt conquered and assimilated into the empires of the ancient world. But recent evidence points to a small, surviving colony, which has established itself within the studios of contemporary Hollywood.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
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