On Independence Day, Shabbat Balak, & 17 Tammuz

Post date: Jul 6, 2012 6:36:57 AM

I wanted to share some thoughts with you regarding Independence Day, this week's Torah portion, Balak, and the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz which occurs this Sunday.

First, Independence Day. I had the pleasure to hear philosopher Jacob Needleman speak about freedom, and more specifically, about rights. He said each right that we enjoy as a society carries with it a specific duty on ourselves individually, if it is to be enjoyed by all. For example, at a very basic level, the right of free speech carries with it the obligation to allow others to speak freely.

This message immediately caught my attention. As Jews, we are taught, through ritual observance, that freedom is intimately related to responsibility. Freedom, celebrated as the liberation from slavery on Pesah, and responsibility noted by commemorating the receiving of the Law on Shavuot, are ritually tied by the Counting the Omer for 7 weeks between the two festivals. So far, nothing new, right?

Hold that thought.

Now comes Balak. For a quick review of the salient points, Balak was the king of the Moabites. He hired the 'prophet' Bilaam to curse the Jews, believing sincerely that Bilaam's words carried some mystical power. Bilaam accepts the job, albeit with some caveats and requirements. And of course, we read that upon hearing the command of God (i.e., compelling truth) and observing the thriving Nation of Israel, Bilaam is incapable of reciting a curse. Instead, he pronounces the now famous words, "Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael," - How good are your tents, [children of] Jacob; your dwelling places, [nation of] Israel!

Hold that thought.

Finally, we come to 17 Tammuz, a dawn-to-dusk fast day. This day marks the beginning of a 3 week period of sadness, culminating with the Fast of Tisha Be'Av. Ritually, we associate this day, which falls 40 days after Shavuot, with Moses's breaking the 2 tablets of the Decalogue upon seeing the Golden Calf.* Recall that Moses was on mount Sinai for 39 days when our ancestors became impatient and demanded an idol to worship.

What ties these stories together, you might ask? In a word, truth, or more importantly, our responsibility to use our intelligence to ascertain truth.

Needleman dives deeper. He does not accept that merely allowing others to speak is a sufficient responsibility for the right of free speech. How, for example, might you allow all people access to the vehicles of their free speech? Can you effect an equivalence people's broadcast air time or column inches? How about two people's ability to write compellingly? Have we not learned that "separate" is inherently "unequal"?

It is impossible to make the "speech" equal, and therefore, Needleman argues, the real duty of every citizen can not be merely to *allow* others to speak. Instead, our responsibility must be something we can control individually, and that is, to *listen* to what others have to say. In order to sustain an environment of free speech, each of us must be open to understanding what truth may exist in other people's ideas and what non-truth may exist in our own.

And herein lies the horror of 17 Tammuz. A mere 40 days after the Epiphany, our collective impatience & fear prevented us from accepting the truth we had just experienced at Mt. Sinai. Our ancestors returned to superstition and idol worship - things that, by definition, preclude openness to intelligent thought.

And herein lies the beauty of Bilaam's blessing, Ma Tovu. It is not just what he said, but that he *listened* to truth (i.e., God), even at the peril of denying King Balak his curse. He allowed the truth of his own observation to dictate his prophesy. And what was the truth that Bilaam observed? That Israel had completed its transformation from a band of slaves to a nation of free people. And it was awesome!

Unprecedented in history, these United States were founded on an idea, not on a tribe or clan, but a concept: that people choose their government.** They predicated that idea on the fundamental rights of the individual granted by the Creator, so that no earthly institution could deny those rights. For us to sustain the experiment of this great country, we must continually reevaluate what we think is true, be open to new realities, and indeed, take personal responsibility for our fellow citizens to exercise their rights.

Our treasured freedom of religion enjoins upon us not merely to tolerate the existence of other religious traditions, but to live with them, to understand what they have to say. Like Bilaam, we need to speak truth about what we rationally observe, whether in others or in ourselves. And just as important, if not more so, our freedom requires us to keep a vigil on our own ideas - our tendency toward turning religious practice into religious dogma. Just because something *is*, does not mean it *must be*.

As we come upon this Shabbat Balak and 17 Tammuz, perhaps we can re-invent the fast as our very own Declaration of Independence - from superstition, dogma, and closed-mindedness. Let us be inspired by the message of Torah and by the struggle of our founding fathers, to pursue relentlessly a path of liberty based on the dignity of all.

Friday night services tonight, 6pm, at Nazareth College, room 375 in the Golisano Academic Building.

Shabbat Shalom,


* We have other ritual associations with 17 Tammuz, such as the Romans' breach of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Tammuz is itself a Babylonian deity. In ancient Babylonia, Tammuz, which roughly lands after the summer solstice, was a period of mourning reflecting the fear of days becoming shorter. Jewish practice and lore often has Near Eastern antecedents, which we typically eviscerated of pagan worship, then infused with new traditions that emphasized monotheism.

** Of course, even with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution allowed for slavery, precluded women's suffrage, etc. We were never, nor will we ever be perfect; the best we can do is to improve over the long arc of time.