Friday, 21 June 2013

Parshat Balak

כי ידעתי את אשר תברך מברך ואשר תאר יואר

"Because I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed." (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:6)

The Rabbinical tradition is fond of contrasting Bilaam the gentile prophet and Avraham. But one contrast seldom discussed is their relationship to blessing (brakhah). When Balak, King of Moab, fearfully concocts a plan to have the gentile prophet curse Israel, he says, "For I know that who you bless is blessed and who you curse is cursed."

This is, of course, the exact opposite of Hashem's language when talking to Abraham: "Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you, cursed." (Bereishit/Genesis 12:3).

How do we explain this contrast?

In fact, as we find out, Bilaam is only able to bless those who are blessed and curse those who are cursed- by Hashem. As a result when he finally stands above the encampment of Israel in the desert and attempt to pronounce a curse on Israel it comes out of his mouth as a blessing: "How shall I curse whom Hashem has not cursed?"

In a characteristic bit of chutzpah Bilaam's blessing, which follows, is recited by Jews every morning when entering the synagogue: "How good are your tents, Ya'akov (Mah tovu, ohelecha Ya'akov)...."

So Bilaam cannot, in fact, act against Hashem's will. Nevertheless, blessing and curse follow upon his word: it is a matter of a special power that Bilaam has.

By contrast, for Avraham and his descendants, who will be blessed and who will be cursed does not follow from their word, from their power. It follows from other people's perception of them: from how other people will toward them.

What follows from this is that Israel in the world is a source of blessing only to the extent that it inspires other people to bless Israel. And here we find the heavy burden placed on God's people.

But why is this? Why should Hashem bless those who bless Israel, and curse those who curse it? Surely this is because Israel is Hashem's representative in the world. When Jews pray daily, "Humble Your enemies...." they mean, "Humble our enemies.." This is proven by the fact that some Hebrew prayer books read "Your enemies" and some explicitly state "the enemies of Israel".

In fact in Jewish tradition doing good in the world is often referred to as "sanctifying the divine name" (kiddush Hashem), and doing evil as "chillul Hashem"- defiling, defaming, or de-sanctifying God's name, Heaven forbid.

Israel is to sanctify God's name in the world through their conduct and their relationship with Hashem. This is the basis for Jesus' famous prayer, perhaps the most commonly recited prayer in the world- the Lord's Prayer, whose opening line is " Our Father in Heaven, may your name be sanctified..."

The reality today is that Israel continues to fulfill or not fulfill this mission. God's promises are not revoked, as many Jews are profoundly dedicated servants of Hashem and lamps to the world.

That said, the Gospel declares Jesus as the embodiment of Israel, and since His appearance in the world the main representative of Hashem in the world is now Yeshua HaMoshiach, Jesus Christ. This is the sense in which those who bless Jesus and his apostles will be blessed, and those who curse them, will find themselves "worse off then Sodom when judgement comes..."(Luke 10:12, Matthew 10:15). Central to Paul's argument in Romans is that the true Israel is spiritual in nature and that though the value and role of the Jews has not ended, the true Israel goes beyond the boundaries of Israel (Romans 1-3). The burden that was once God's peoples alone now falls also on the Gentile church, who together with the Jewish church, are the body of Christ in the world.

We should not misunderstand what is said here. Hashem did not say "those who fail to bless you will be cursed", but rather "those who curse you". We should not misunderstand this to mean that anyone in the ancient world who failed to bless Israel was under divine judgement. The Tanakh makes quite clear that Hashem judges people primarily on whether they live up to the moral law that He wrote in their hearts.

Likewise when I assert that those who bless Jesus are blessed and those who curse Him cursed this shouldn't be misunderstood. This truth is both an opportunity and a burden for those who embrace it. Those who bless Jesus are those who understand who He is. This is "justification through faith" in Jesus.

There are also those who "fail to bless Jesus", however, for reasons of ignorance, misunderstanding, or pre-occupation with God's communications to the Nations outside of the sphere of Israel (the Midrash states that prophets are sent to each nation, as the Qu'ran also affirms). These will not be cursed, but judged on the basis of their alignment with their own conscience, or in other words, according to the degree of their fear of God (yirat Hashem). "Will not the judge of all the earth act justly?" (Bereishit/Genesis 18:25).

That is not to deny the universal scope of the Christian's concern. As the end of the blessing verse about Avraham from Berishit/Genesis attests, "All of the familes of the earth shall be blessed through you." All.

What does this mean? My understanding is that whether the families of the earth explicitly bless the true Israel inside and outside of Christ or not, they will be blessed through the activities of Israel and Christ. It cannot mean that all the families of the earth will bless Israel and/or Christ, so the blessing of Israel and/or Christ must not only extend to those who bless, but also those who fail to bless. This does not mean that it will extend to those who curse. There is a line beyond which blessing cannot cross, and the "all" above must be modified.

The blessing that Israel and Christ offers, then, is not limited to those who become Jews or Christians. It extends to all the families of the earth, aside from those who curse Israel or Christ, ie. those who curse God. Those who "curse" God are those who turn away from a loving relationship with God. In doing so they turn away from the source of all good and indeed the source of life itself. And as CS Lewis argued, what they want they get.

The fact that all the familes of the earth will be blessed through Christ and the true Israel, however, shows that it is not just those who turn away who get what they want. To quote Roger Waters, "What God wants, God gets."

No comments:

Post a Comment