This week’s Torah portion takes us almost to the edge of the Promised Land. The Israelites have been journeying through territories and kingdoms that skirt the east bank of the Jordan river as they head north to the crossing at Jericho, as God is guiding them. They had just asked the Amorites really nicely if they could pass through their kingdom in peace, promising not to take anything or veer off the main road. And when the Amorite king rejected the request and sent an army against them instead, God mustered the Israelite men – they devastated the Amorite army and took control of the entire kingdom.
As we pick up the story this week, the king of Moab – the one remaining kingdom between them and the crossing at Jericho – has heard of the Amorites’ defeat. He, too, would like to deny Israel entrance to his kingdom – but now he fears the result if he resorts to violence. So he tries something a little more subtle and a little trickier. He resorts to something akin to witchcraft.
TORAH READING: Numbers 22:2-6
“Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, ‘There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.'”
Now, I don’t want to spoil this for anyone. But Balak’s attempt at trickery does not go well at all. The pagan Balaam – who is considered both prophet and a master of magic powers – is co-opted by Israel’s God, and every time he tries to curse the Israelite nation, words of blessing come out of his mouth instead. Not once, not twice, but three times he blesses the Israelites with greater passion and promise – the third time uttering the words we still use in worship today: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
Looking at how the story unfolds, I think King Balak’s attempt to wipe out Israel is doomed from the start. Why? First, he won’t go up against them himself – he’d rather hire a prophet with magical powers to wish them away. Maybe he’s a coward. Maybe he wants plausible deniability about his role if things go south.
And second, he’s doomed because his premise for the whole thing is a lie from the start. He uses the same excuse to destroy Israel as Pharaoh had used: “There is a people that came out of Egypt, and it hides the earth from view and it is settled next to me. Come and curse this people for me, for they are too numerous for me.”
Are they too numerous in terms of the size of their army? Or is it just that he doesn’t want all those Israelites as neighbors? Is it fear of conquest – or is it basically an early episode of Jew hatred?
That question occurred to me this week after I read a story on the Daily Mail web site about the ugly debacle in Philadelphia, where an Israeli food-truck was un-invited from a Father’s Day food truck festival. “Moshava,” a food truck selling Israeli street food, was launched in May at the monthly Taste of Home food festival, where a local group called Eat Up the Borders promotes small businesses run by immigrants. Chef Nir Sheynfeld, who was born in Israel, would seem to fit the bill, and everything went great. But this month, he was asked to stay away.
Eat Up the Borders released a statement that read, in part:
“In order to best serve our guests, we decided to remove one of our food vendors for Sunday’s event so that we could deliver an optimal experience to all. This decision came from listening to the community we wish to serve and love. We do stand by our initiative to give vendors from all nationalities a platform to showcase their talents and provide an awesome experience for all.”
Huh, that’s interesting. A platform for “all nationalities” – but apparently not for an Israeli food truck. They didn’t really say why it was okay to have Moshava there in May, but not in June. But frankly, that’s the kind of language that makes my spidey senses tingle: we are open and inclusive – they seem to say – but we still are disinviting the Jews.
One eventual excuse from the organizers was: well, we had agreed that both the Palestinian truck and the Israeli truck would come to our events. And since the Palestinian truck couldn’t make it, we cancelled out the Israelis too.
But Chef Sheynfeld, who was of course disappointed, explained it another way. He was told to stay away, he said, after threats of violent protests made to the organizers over his presence. Here’s how he explained it to his followers on Instagram:
“The organizers of the event heard rumors of a protest happening because of us being there and decided to uninvite us from fear that the protesters would get aggressive and threaten their event. We were hoping that the organizers @eathuptheborders and@sunflowerphilly would step up to the plate and defend local, small and immigrant based businesses, no matter where they are from (as per their so called ‘mission statement’) but by the looks of it, fear, violence, and intimidation got the best of them.”
“We really do hope that in the future you don’t succumb to such antisemitic and dividing rhetoric and keep true to your words of a safe environment for all religions and nationalities – not just all of them except Israel and Jewish ones.”
To which I say: Bravo.
The fact that the organizers did not disclose the threat of violence may be a sign of cowardice on their part. But it also may be that they thought disinviting the Jews was no big deal. They certainly weren’t willing to stare down the haters and racists and anti-Semites. We don’t even know if they even notified the police. Surely a police presence would not only have provided protection, it also would have sent a clear message that potential violence would not be tolerated.
Fortunately, the backlash toward the event organizers was swift and powerful – The Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League immediately weighed in publicly with a statement that read, in part, “the decision to bow to this anti-Semitic intimidation by disinviting Moshava was wrong.” Two state representatives condemned the organizers’ surrender to the threats from bigots, which promoted division instead of unity. And the web site “Israelly Cool” suggested that the organizers looked at threats against Jews differently than threats against other groups.
In the end, the organizers decided to cancel the entire event because of what they call only the “ongoing situation” with Moshava.
The “ongoing situation” – what the Israelis would call the matzav – is taking place at a time when attacks on Jews in this country are rising once again. The conflict between Israel and the Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas certainly enflamed anger. But that anger led to attacks on Jews in this country who have nothing at all to do with what’s going on in the Middle East – except that they are Jews. According to the ADL, there were 127 reported hate attacks on Jews in the two weeks before the conflict – and 222 reported during it. They – we – are being attacked for who we are, not for our political positions. That is hated, pure and simple. And it cannot be tolerated. Not here, not anywhere.
As for Chef Sheynfeld, he said he was disappointed by what happened and told his followers he’s working with the organizers. And he thanked the public for all their love and support. He deserves better. We deserve better. We deserve for the bigots not to win. We demand that Jews not be blamed, or be forced to bear the burden, for antisemitism, as they were this week in Philadelphia.
We deserve not to be the bogeyman of hate-mongers who materialize in every generation as they did in this week’s Torah portion – as King Balak of Moab looked out on the wandering Israelites trying to get home, and saw a pestilence that had to be destroyed one way or another.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin