July 14, 2005
Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville, N.C. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a fine gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.
During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received "the calling from above" to leave his law practice of 20 years to join the ministry.
Upon hearing this my wife remarked, "That's strange because I've been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer."
Confused, the minister asked, "But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?"
When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, "Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi."
Whenever I read this week's Torah portion, I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because the portion also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that the non-Jews ever had.
Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in the second century CE during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.
We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.
Oenomaus answered, "Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children's voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can."
Alluding to Isaac's blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in the Book of Genesis, Oenomaus commented: "As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau's hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau's hands."
The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.
How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. "Save the Whales," they say, but they permit Jonah to drown. When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.