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Home » Balak

Balak: Wear Religion on Your Sleeve

Submitted by on July 17, 2016 – 1:01 amNo Comment | 3,292 views

Jewish Pride
The idea that anti-Semitism is precipitated by our outward Jewish appearance began to percolate in the Western European Jewish community during the eighteenth century. They surmised that if they would adopt a secular European appearance, they would be accepted by the nations as equals. Thus came the clarion call, be a Jew at home and a gentile on the street – don’t wear religion on your sleeve.

This idea was also common among North American Jews for most of its history. The irony is that it was precisely our unbending pride in Judaism and unswerving faith in G-d’s protection that enabled us to survive our long exile. When they burned us at the stake, we cried Shema Yisrael. When they slaughtered us on the streets we died with G-d on our lips. Concealing our Judaism is the first step toward assimilation. Holding it up for the world to see has been the secret of our survival.

Only in the last sixty years have Jews begun to feel comfortable wearing Jewish garb in public. It is now understood that if you wear religion on your sleeve, you will wear it at home. If it disappears in public, it will fade in private too. This is why we make a point of kindling our Chanukah candles outdoors or at least where it is visible outdoors. It is why we should wear our Kippah even when walking the streets.

Balaam
When Balaam received license from G-d to curse the Jews, he awoke early and saddled his donkey with enthusiasm. G-d proclaimed, “Wicked one, Abraham has already preceded you. He awoke early to saddle his donkey with enthusiasm for his journey to the binding of Isaac.”

When the donkey saw an angel standing in its path, it veered off into a narrow mountain pass scraping Balaam’s legs on both sides. At that point G-d proclaimed, “Do you hope to curse those who received the tablets that are engraved on both sides?”

When the donkey opened its mouth, it demanded to know why Balaam had struck it three times. G-d placed these words in its mouth to signify that Balaam was wasting his time cursing a people that would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times each year.[1]

The common theme between these three points, Abraham’s enthusiasm to bind Isaac, the national Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the tablets that are engraved on both sides, is the very idea that we were discussing above. Public displays of Jewish pride. In each of these cases, the message was clear, wear religion on your sleeve.

Abraham made no secret of his faith. He advocated and campaigned for people to embrace his faith. His life was imperiled many times on account of these campaigns, but he never stopped. With this, Abraham ingrained in us, his children, a stiff backbone and unbending courage to stand up for our principles. No matter the risk and no matter the tyrant, Jews don’t back down. Mordechai, neither kneels nor bows before Haman.

The binding of Isaac was the pinnacle of Abraham’s dedication. With the death of Isaac, Abraham’s entire life’s work would go to waste. Isaac was poised to carry Abraham’s torch into the future, yet if G-d wanted Isaac to be bound, Abraham would place his trust in G-d and prepare to do just that. After the fact word got out and many taunted Abraham for nearly killing his son, but Abraham stood proud.

Our pilgrimage to Jerusalem was similar. Not only did we travel to the same mountain as Abraham, the spot of Isaac’s binding became the site of the Jewish Temple, we did so openly and publicly. The world knew that Jews abandoned their homes and estates three times each year. Should they want to rob, burn and pillage, our homesteads were vulnerable. We made clear that we placed our trust in G-d, on whose promise of protection we relied, and we traveled. We wore our faith and religion on our sleeve.

This concept is amplified by the engraved words of the Ten Commandments that permeated the tablets until they were legible on both sides. To be a Jew at home is to hide our Judaism. Tablets that are engraved on only one side can be turned toward the wall and its message, concealed. A message legible on both sides cannot be concealed. You can turn it any which way and the message is still clear. On this side and on this side, in public and in private, you wear your religion on your sleeve.

The actual words of our sages are, “engraved on this side and on this side.” The word this signifies that you are pointing to the item you reference; it is displayed publically and you are pointing to it. When Judaism is visible on this side and this side it means that it is as visible on the street as it is at home. [2]

The message to Balaam was this. If Jews would only practice their faith at home, but not in public, they would be vulnerable to your curse. But since they practice with integrity, their flanks are protected. Cursing them is a waste of time because they are immune to your efforts.

Adam or Abraham
Adam lacked the courage of conviction and caved before the serpent’s pressure. When he was invited to eat the forbidden fruit, he succumbed. When G-d looked for him in the Garden of Eden, the Torah says that Adam was hiding. The message is that he only entered the Garden of Eden, meaning he only behaved as G-d wanted, when he was in hiding. In the presence of skeptics, he acted like them.

Until he repented, Adam was the polar opposite of Abraham. Whereas Abraham stood tall before his detractors, was dedicated to his principles in private and in public, Adam caved. In private he remained devout, in public he surrendered.

We have a choice to make. Do we want to be the nation of Abraham or the children of Adam? The Psalmist wrote, “When… the nation of… Abraham gathers…. G-d… protects them.” In contrast, the children of Adam are described as, “Those who dwell in darkness and gloom.”[3]

The road forward, the path that leads to light at the end of the tunnel is paved with unmitigated displays of public Jewish pride. As Abraham did, we place our faith in G-d and forge ahead. If we choose the path of so called enlightenment, a Jew at home and a gentile on the street, we will find ourselves “in darkness and gloom.” Do you want to be Abraham’s nation or Adam’s children? Will you wear religion on your sleeve or only in your heart? [4]

[1] Midrash Tanchumah Balak: 8 & 9. Bamidbar Rabbah 20: 14. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin: 105b.

[2] See Rashi’s commentary to Exodus 15: 2.

[3] The first quote is from 47:10 and follows Rashi’s reading that G-d will protect the Jews in the merit of Abraham who risked his life for G-d. The second reading is from 119:10. The link to the children of Adam is made in the prayer chanted for Kaparot on Erev Yom Kippur.

[4] This essay is based Toras Chayim, commentary on the Parsha by Rabbi Meyer Blumenfeld.

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