The Bible is filled with quotes, someone once said. But of course, often what we think is a quote is in fact not.
For instance, Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in Casablanca says “Play it again, Sam”;
Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. …
William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell”; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said “Go west, young man.”
Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake.”
Everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words “Greed is good” in Wall Street, just as everyone distinctly remembers Ingrid Bergman uttering the words “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, even though what she really utters is “Play it, Sam.” When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong. …
Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. …
–Louis Menand, “Notable quotables: Is there anything that is not a quotation?” The New Yorker, February 19, 2007.
This week gives us a Torah portion and a Haftarah passage that offer famous lines to quote.
Our first prayer when we enter a synagogue is a line from this parsha: Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov – “How fair are your tents, Jacob!”
And then there is the Haftarah, finishing with Micah’s message: Higid l’kha Adam mah tov – “He told you, oh man, what is good.” Great quotes!
We can also find a powerful political message in these readings.
The king of Moab sees swarms of aliens entering his country. This is not good. There goes the neighborhood, right? These aliens will “lick up the land,” he says. They’ll take away jobs, housing, public facilities.
So what does he do? Build a wall? No. He sends for a sorcerer named Bilaam. “Come put a curse on them,” he says. “Keep them out of our country.” It’s also clear that this curse is worth money to the king.
Bilaam invites the delegates to spend the night while he consults with a Higher Authority, seeking a message from the Divine. God says don’t go.
Of course, Bilaam is thinking with his pocket. If he shouldn’t go with this committee of PR men, then maybe a more important committee will be different, meaning more money. So he doesn’t go with Balak’s first group, but he does go with the next group.
The story continues with the tale of Bilaam’s journey by donkey, his repeated forced stops along the way, and his projected curses which all turn into blessings.
So how do we think of Bilaam?
He certainly had an evil streak – greed and cunning and a deep desire to destroy Israel.
And yet he found himself unable to utter the curse.
He himself could not see what the donkey saw – an angel blocking his way.
What’s angel? Literally a messenger! He’s more than that.
Perhaps the angel with the drawn sword is the consequence of Bilaam’s action.
It takes a lot of wisdom to see the consequences of what we plan to do. Bilaam couldn’t see those consequences, but the donkey could. The third time she sees the danger, the donkey squats down on the ground for safety, whereupon Bilaam blows his stack and beats his donkey with a stick. Only then does the donkey speak, saying, in effect: “You think I’m only a jackass, but I’m smarter than you are. Open your eyes and look what you may be getting us into!”
Isn’t that what any political leader, in fact any responsible human being needs to hear? Sometimes it takes the talking donkey in our midst to open our eyes.
You can discriminate against people. You can keep them down. You can exploit them. You can even praise them while you’re doing it. That’s what Bilaam did when he said Mah tovu, isn’t it? Praise the aliens for building nice tents. But his real objective was to get those tents for himself, or to destroy them.
Sooner or later there’s an avenging messenger to deal with.
And here’s where the prophet Micah in the haftarah portion comes in, to tell us: Look ahead, and see the real purpose. What does God require of us? Asot mishpat – DO justice, don’t just talk about it.
Secondly: Ahavat Khesed – love mercy. Know the difference between love and seduction.
Bilaam wanted to be seduced by Balak’s riches. When that didn’t work, he stirred up some seduction himself, and spread disease among Israel. Sex passed as love.
So Micah comes preaches: Ahavat Khesed – love mercy. More than passion is compassion.
Third: And always, whether you lead a nation, a city, a family, a local organization, or a chapter of a global movement – or just lead your own life – Hatzneya lekhet – walk with humility.
Humility does not mean to be timid and always take the back seat. Humility means, be ready to listen – listen to the message of your heritage, and even be ready to listen to somebody you may think is only a talking donkey. Just be careful. Don’t confuse the talking donkey with the prophet.
Today, we need to listen to the Prophet Micah.
As you know I have just returned from more than two weeks in Israel. During the time there the Netanyahu government bent to the will of the ultra-orthodox and reneged on its promise to build a permanent prayer space at the Western Wall for liberal groups. He also backtracked on a conversion process that recognized the rights of non ultra-orthodox Jews.
He did this for one reason, politics. His coalition government depends on the support of a small number of Jews who wield great power. In response there has been righteous indignation which is not helpful. But there has also been among some liberal leaders a new way of seeing (like Bilaam’s donkey) in which the truth is apparent. Politics in Israel is a serious game and the other side plays it better than we do. The response is not to boycott Israel but to engage in Israel even more and to play our cards much better.
Speak to the consul general as I have will be doing next week.
Meet with the Israel minister of tourism and express your disappointment in his current approach to non-Israeli Jews.
Attend a rally at the prime ministers house, as I did last Saturday night.
Write and tell people the real truth which is that the ultra-orthodox are on the defensive. That’s why they are fighting so hard.
And let’s remember that Israel is not just a political state. It is also the Jewish homeland. We have a stake in its survival and its improvement. But Israel doesn’t need lectures from us. Israel needs engagement and tough love. That’s how it works.
Micah in the end is right. Love mercy, do justice, walk humbly with God. But also fight for what matters most. To repeat: Humility does not mean to be timid and always take the back seat. Humility means, be ready to listen – listen to the message of your heritage, and you have a great one…listen to the voice of your conscience…even be ready to listen to somebody you may think is only a talking donkey. Just be careful. Don’t confuse the talking donkey with the prophet.
This is our way forward.