Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mightier than the (S)word?

The other day at a Shabbos morning kiddush I met an 82-year-old newlywed - how cool is that? - who regaled us with tales of his youth.  Seems after a rough start as a street punk he became a prizefighter, proudly wearing the star of David on his trunks.  In fact his name was David.  In 1946 he found himself in the ring up against a blonde, blue-eyed German opponent who had the misfortune of representing, in my new friend's eyes, the unspeakable evil from which the world had only recently been delivered.  As they shook hands prior to the first round, the swaggering, swarthy Jewish fighter launched a torrent of verbal threats that struck fear into the German's heart.  They returned to their corners; the bell rang; David then proceeded to chase the German around the ring, cursing him mercilessly but never laying a hand on him, though not for want of trying.  When the bell rang to start the second round the terrified German refused to leave his corner.  I told David that his was the quintessential Jewish victory: the hands are hands of Esau, but "hakol kol Yaakov" - the voice is the voice of Jacob.

As it happens, the current Torah portion, Balak, addresses this very contrast between brawn and brain.  It's nearing the end of the 40-year spiritual sojourn in the wilderness and the children of Israel are preparing to enter the promised land.  Some of the locals are none too pleased.  Even though the Israelites have no intention of attacking Moab, the weak but devious Moabite King Balak schemes to stop them in their tracks.  Informed that the miraculous military might of the Jews derives more from the  power of prayer than from their skill with the sword, he decides to hoist them with their own petard, as it were, and hires a sorcerer named Bila'am to curse them with magical incantations.  Turns out to be a poor choice of tools; and in a dazzling display of irony the Holy One Blessed Be He foils Bila'am's and Balak's dastardly plan - first with a talking donkey (ha! so you think you've got the gift of gab?) then with a warrior-angel brandishing a sword (you guys tried to usurp the Jews' best weapon - now watch us come back atcha with yours!) and, finally, taking total control of Bila'am's voice and transforming his curses into blessings, giving voice to the highest and brightest of messianic prophecies.  (And later, in a most apropos epilogue, Bila'am dies by the sword.)


What drives all this turnabout is, essentially, character.  Bila'am tips us off as to his lack thereof, not just with his seething Jew-hatred and self-aggrandizing greed, but with a telling little exchange with Balak's boys.  When they ask him how come such a hotshot is riding on a donkey instead of a horse, he responds disingenuously: Oh, I usually ride horses, but the horses are out to pasture at the moment.  It reads sort of like the Biblical equivalent of a bumper sticker on a beat-up 15-year-old Oldsmobile: "My other car is a Ferrari."  The donkey speaks up and blows his cover, testifying not only that Bila'am rides him all the time, but that he also takes other liberties with his animal which decency precludes repeating here.

The power of our words is a function of our integrity.  Whether communing with a friend or negotiating with a foe, it's when mind and heart and mouth are all lined up that we harness our higher power to the task at hand.  The rite of prayer, in fact, is among other things an exercise in harmonizing our speech with our innermost intent - otherwise it's at risk of becoming lip service.  But while our inner work is performed in private, the proof of the pudding is in public.  Victory calls for congruency in thought, speech, and deed.

We are on our way to the fulfillment of those prophetic promises, but the deal is not done.  Balak and Bila'am reside incarnate in those who would destroy, defame, and delegitimize us, not necessarily in that order, with their big lies and fake flotillas and incantations to numb the multitudes.  At times it appears they've become consummate masters of the very arts of communication (read: propaganda) at which we're purported to excel - and we're too often forced to man the ramparts and resort to the sword.  I have no doubt that their donkeys and other enablers will stumble before too long, but from our side it behooves us to remember that the voice is the voice of Jacob.  Perhaps if we train ourselves finally to speak truth with the unmitigated confidence of youth we'll win by a TKO before having to fight another round.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this article. Love how you tied the story at the beginning to a concrete lesson at end while weaving in the weekly Torah portion in the middle!