Balak features one of the more interesting stories in Torah. Batak, Moabite king, fearing the Israelite multitudes, asks Balaam to curse them. God intervenes with Balaam telling him no. Balak “ups” the offer to bring a curse. Balaam sets out on his donkey, meets a “man”, “angel”, “advisory” (a “malach” ), enters into a dialogue with the donkey and eventually winds up blessing the Israelites. Included in that blessing is what will become a well known prayer found in most Shabbat services, the “mah tovu”, as Balaam says “how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). Israel is blessed and all seems good until the very end of the portion when the people turn again to idolatry and depravity (Numbers 25:1ff) with the Moabite women.
One of the more interesting passages in this unusual story appears in Numbers 23. Balaam looks upon the Israelites and observes that he cannot curse them and then states: “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” (23:9) A people who “dwells apart”. Any cursory reading of Jewish history will show that in this small verse a lot is contained. The argument over Jewish identity rages on today. How assimilated must we be? How much must we stand apart in order to preserve our uniqueness. The current Jewish Review of Books has a lead article just on this from a very fascinating historical perspective. The article is by Allan Arkush and is “In The Melting Pot”. (Jewish Review of Books. Summer 2018. www.jewishreviewofbooks.com)
We are in the midst of a great period of transition within American Judaism. We do not know what kind of or shape of Judaism will emerge from this “age of transition.” I do believe that much of this has been spearheaded by our generation. So many of the recent “revolutions” within Jewish life were founded within Boomer generation quests. It is possible that the ultimate legacy of the Jewish Boomer generation will be a true “American “Judaism. We seem to be well on the way of that being true. I think that one of the motivating factors in the demand and desire on the part of Boomers for new rituals, serious adult Jewish study and a non pediatric religious experience is our search for how this ancient faith tradition can speak to the new life stages and life challenges that have become part of this longevity resolution. We wish authenticity in our Judaism and search for how that authenticity can be played out within a distinct American culture which, as we all know, is itself undergoing change.
This dialogue with history and the now is creating new dynamics of Jewish experience and giving rise to the freedom for more of us to seek a personal Jewish experience unlike any we had in our youth. How much we choose to “dwell apart” and what that will look like is part of the current Jewish dynamic. We, hopefully, will embrace the possible.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min