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Binary vision isn’t healthy: Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

3 weeks ago

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

Do you remember the classic 1980s film “The Breakfast Club”? It was a favorite of mine as a teen and made a lasting impression on me. The short summary is that a bunch of high-schoolers get weekend detention together in the school library with very little supervision and go from being totally alienated from one another to really bonding. 

The students are all different, representing the stereotypes of most high schools: the jock, the rich girl, the quiet and wacky girl, the nerdy guy and the tough guy from a rough family. At the movie’s end, a letter to the teacher supervising the group describes how, even though he tried to pigeonhole them with these stereotypes, they rejected them and realized in the end — after eight hours together, some biting conversations and heart-to-heart exchanges — that they all have a little bit of each personality within themselves, and that they are more than just what others think of them. 

Believe it or not, this message has something in common with this week’s parasha. In the Torah, Balak, the king of Moab, hires a local sorcerer named Balaam to curse the Israelites. This is one of the more outrageous parashas, known by many as biblical humor. There are talking animals, a neurotic king who runs around from mountain to mountain like a chicken with its head cut off trying to get the Israelites cursed and a non-Jewish sorcerer who is in dialogue with our God. Time and again, Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them, most famously with the words we say each morning in our liturgy, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. “How great your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel.” 

What can we learn from this parasha and the subtext of “The Breakfast Club”? My friend and colleague Rabbi Brent Spodek once posited that both examples, the parasha and the movie, remind us that binary vision, namely seeing the world in stark black-and-white terms, just doesn’t work. Balaam had no nuance in his work — it was either bless or curse, period — and this prevented him from growing as a person. The characters in the movie came in with a set way of seeing each other based on outward appearance and assumed matching personalities, but they leave with a changed view, realizing that we are all complex beings. 

The world is a complicated place, filled with nuance, subtlety and multiple hidden meanings. If we try to live solely with the notion that things are black-and-white — be it with our families, our communities, our nation or our world — we will constantly find ourselves frustrated. 

Balaam was called to curse and could only bless; and yet, sadly, in the rabbinic tradition, Balaam is seen as an enemy of Israel, a part of the binary vision our ancestors had about who was good and who was bad. However, there are strands of rabbinic conversation — some recorded, some just alluded to — that suggest there is something to learn from the Balaam episode. Otherwise, why would his words, “mah tovu,” be not just part of our service, but something that almost all Jews around the world know? 

One of the lessons, according to the Talmud in Sanhedrin 105b, is actually about Balak, the king. It says, “A person should always engage in the study of Torah or the doing of a mitzvah, even if not for its own sake, because from learning Torah or a mitzvah not for its own sake, we eventually come to learn or do for its own sake.” They learned this from the fact that the offerings Balak brought during his attempts to get Balaam to curse the Israelites, although not for God, end up being rewarded by the fact that our great descendant, Ruth, is said to come from the grandson of Balak. What can we learn from this?

I believe that our eyes and ears must be open to the hearts of those in our world with whom we disagree, with whom we think we have nothing in common. Like the Breakfast Club gang, we never know where we might find commonality, where we might find insights that otherwise would have eluded us. 

I don’t see the world in a binary way, in an us-versus-them, black-versus-white way. I refuse to stop believing that seeing gray offers us a much brighter future than black and white. Avot d’Rebbe Natan teaches, “Who is the greatest of all heroes? One who turns his/her enemy into a friend.” May the wisdom of our tradition inspire us this Shabbat.


Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net). Follow him on Twitter @rabbijoshua.

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