Balak: It’s a great view from up here!

FJ comes down the hallway in his big smile and light, dancing gait, especially cheerful after a shower. “I feel like a new man”, he proclaims in his booming, friendly voice, as if he’s not wearing hospital pj’s, “and man, the view from up here, just doesn’t cease to amaze me!”
The view from Bellevue Hospital’s 19th floor is indeed fantastic, even if broken to little squares by the thick bars, and somewhat opaque by the double glass and grime. FJ invites me over to see it better: “You’re worried, chaplain? Don’t worry. Look at those kids on the walkway by the water, do you see? Probably on some field trip, and over there, that boat coming in on the East River, right there! This morning I saw the airplanes whizzing in and out! And there’s even a pool in the building next door. I wish I could get a job there, right there! I’d do anything, windows, laundry, sweeping the whole staircase of them 20 some floors, ‘sir, would you like me to take out your trash’? Anything, anything at all”.
We stand there quietly for a moment, hands on the bars, gazing outside, as he grows serious: “Seriously, I wish, I wish I could do this, but how? When I get out, they’ll send me away with $40 to the shelter. I’ll still have no job, no training, nothing to do where I have meaning. Day one, I’m fine, strong, hopeful; day 2, I’m carrying on, a bit slower, but still pushing through; I now have $27 but hanging in; Day 3, struggling with the $15 left, lost as to what to do next; day 4, some guy invites me to shoot or snort or smoke, and I think, who the f—k cares about me anyway, let’s have a little something, anything, just to take the throbbing pain away; day 5, you don’t know what day it is anymore; before too long you get in some trouble and you’re locked up again for some s—t. Oh my G-d, if only there was a way to break out of this cycle, to learn a trade! The subways, where our mammas and sisters and everyone in this city ride, are filthy. Give us a respectful job; we have energy, we can clean them up; we can garden, we can do something, anything, but instead, time goes by, prisons get hundreds of thousands of dollars for each and every one of us”.
According to Wikipedia, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. A couple of other alarming facts: With a high relapse rate, it has not proven as a “correctional” system, and the racial picture is even more horrifying with Blacks taking up more than 3 times their place in US population. I am not arguing their innocence or lack thereof, for some have it, and some don’t; I am just wondering: what are we doing? To each other? To ourselves? To G-d’s image and presence in this world?
The Torah portion of Balak is one of a kind: a magician, a speaking she-donkey, curses that turn into blessings… what’s going on? Here are just a couple of thoughts about it:
Balak, king of Moav, hires Bil’am to curse the Children of Israel on their journey to the Land (Numbers 22:5), and the question should be asked: if Bil’am is so powerful, why not hire him to bless the Moabites, instead of curse the Children of Israel? Turns out, that sometimes, we, humans, get so involved in our desire to destroy someone else, that we focus on that, instead – and sometimes at the expense of – our own well-being.
Another question is the famous “ma tovu”, the words that decorate many synagogues throughout the world and open our morning prayers: XXX why pick the words of a non-Jewish magician who set to destroy us, as those that adorn our shuls and start our day? The MaHaRaL teaches that there words are true, davka because they come from an “outsider”. We know from the Talmud that witnesses must be completely not related to the matter over which they testify, or it seems false because they are —- noge’a bedavar, related to the matter. In order for something to credible, it should come from an impartial source. So it is with ma tovu: had we praised our own tents, camp, overall fabulousness it might come from – and create – a feeling of haughtiness and pride, a ‘look at us, aren’t we wonderful’ (the same feeling that might have led to the transgression at the end of the section), but like this, we had no control over what blessing was said. Therefore, it became even more powerful, like an objective testimony.

Shabbat Shalom.



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1 Response to Balak: It’s a great view from up here!

  1. Linda Laflamme Neska says:

    Just like you and your incarcerated friend looking out the window reminds me of Balaam and Balak looking down on the Jews….

    Have him contact the office of Sen Corey Booker who does great work in the field of helping people like your friend. There are many organizations who are doing work in this field now; if you want some names, let me know. Be well.

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