|Balaam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction|
by Rabbi Rich Nichol
Parashat Balak - Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
I love reading about contemporary history and I love reading Scripture. I suppose the fact that human nature never really changes partially accounts for the way holy texts come alive for me, bridging the gap between the “then” and the “now.” A dramatic episode comes to mind, one which has a certain resonance with this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak. JFK and the Unspeakable (Simon and Schuster, 2008) by Jim Douglass is a well documented account of the events leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The author describes the ever-deepening rift between this forward thinking President and the Cold War hawks in his administration – a rift which may have ultimately cost him his life.
One particular incident comes to mind:
The Cuban Missile Crisis (October 15-28, 1962) put the young President in a very tough position. Russia, in response to the United States placing nuclear missiles in Turkey, stationed her own in Cuba, a mere ninety miles from America’s shore. Military leaders felt threatened by the Ruskies’ provocative act of placing megatons of destructive might at our doorstep. Like King Balak of Moab, had there been a prophet who could have stood on the shores of Key West Florida and cursed Cuba, the Joint Chiefs would have sent for him. Instead, they urged Kennedy to give the go-ahead for the United States to invade Cuba, to take out those missiles and to give Fidel Castro the proverbial boot.
Balak was upset. Very upset. Joshua and the sons and daughters of Israel had come out of Egypt after wandering aimlessly for 40 years, and now were on the move, conquering one local kingdom after the next.
The Lord heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites, and they and their cities were proscribed… Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness… But Israel put them to the sword and took possession of their land… (Num. 21:3; 23-24).
For King Balak of Moab, no more Mr. Nice Guy. It was time to bring out the big guns. Time to check the database for the name of that power-prophet. “What was his name?” snarled the king. “Balaam, sir.” “Bring him to me…now!” “Yes sir. Right away, sir.”
JFK in characteristic fashion listened attentively to his Joint Chiefs. He asked many questions and registered his strong reservations about a preemptive strike on Cuba. However, they were of one mind. Unless Russia removed those missiles immediately, the United States must attack Cuba. But, Kennedy refused, driving some of his generals into a state of apoplexy. Little didhis military men, or almost anyone else, know at the time, Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, had about a year earlier opened a back-channel communication between them. Their personal letters were delivered surreptitiously by trusted couriers, with Khrushchev first sending his missive to his capitalist counterpart hidden in a newspaper. NK wrote from his seaside villa on the Black Sea and began by describing the beauty of the setting. Then he explained – and I will paraphrase – that the United States and the USSR were like the animals on Noah’s ark. Though it would not be productive for Kennedy and him to discuss which side was represented by the “clean” or “unclean” animals, he argued that one thing was certain – the world – the ark – needed to stay afloat. Kennedy got the message and wrote back from his beachfront home in Hyannis, MA. He also began with a description of the beautiful seaside setting and went on to agree with the Noah’s ark metaphor. Yes. He and his Russian counterpart must not allow the superpowers to destroy the world. A friendship had begun. Back in the Oval Office, JFK resisted his Joint Chiefs’ demands, appealed to his Russian counterpart to remove the missiles and promised to work to retrieve the United States’ weapons from the Turkish-Russian border. It’s a good thing that Kennedy stuck to his guns on this point. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, previously classified documents reveal that had President Kennedy succumbed to the voice of his military men and invaded Cuba, those Russian missiles were already armed and prepared to fly. World War III would likely have commenced late October 1962.
Our Messianic Jewish perspective on the ancient Moab-Israel conflict is clear – no second-guessing who the good guys were in that theater. Israel, the chosen nation through whom God would bless all humanity, was about to ensure its inheritance by entering the Promised Land. King Balak didn’t understand this and so, sent his men out to find Balaam. For him it was time to launch!
But Balaam’s missiles mysteriously misfired!
From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the hills of the east.
Curse, curse me Jacob. Come, tell Israel’s doom!
How can I damn what God has not damned,
How doom what God has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations,
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the dust-cloud of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs. (Num. 23:7-10)
Again and again Balaam fired, oracle upon oracle and each time, a dud. Blessing for Israel instead of cursing. Balak complained bitterly, but to no avail. The gentile prophet for profit, Balaam, could not help himself because, according to Jewish tradition, he was Hashem’s genuine spokesman. We last hear of him in the tradition. He tried one more tactic intended to subvert the Jewish people. When Balaam saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, the Rabbis assert that he advised Balak, as a last resort, to tempt the Hebrew nation to immoral acts and, through these, to worship Baal-peor (San. 106a; Num. 31:16).
Throughout history nations in the Western world have been tempted to see themselves as a new Israel, or history’s choice as the chosen nation for their times. This always has proven to be tricky business. Nations may be more or less righteous, but there is only one Israel, one covenanted people of God, and imagining otherwise has led many down dark paths. We Jews know all too well what exalted national pride can produce from our experience in Europe in the last century. In our comparison of the circumstances facing the super powers in the 1960’s with ancient Moab we form no judgments about which acted as clean and unclean animals. But we stand firm on a couple of points: The God of Israel is the same yesterday, today and forever and he demands that all people groups bend the knee to his holy purposes. We also know that we human beings, in whatever era providence places us, act pretty much the same way when we feel threatened. We tend to draw premature conclusions about the intentions of others and then act in ways which bring misery on ourselves and others. The joint Chiefs in the Kennedy era were wrong – almost horribly wrong – about how to respond to the enemy at the border. King Balak’s assessment of Israel camping at his door was wrong, too. May we all learn these lessons so that peace and goodness may rule in our families, congregations, and beyond.