D’var Torah on Parshat Balak, 4th of July

When I was in college, I had the amazing opportunity to study Jewish life in Central Eastern Europe. I met with Jewish community leaders in Hungary, Poland, and Germany, but I was based in Prague, Czech Republic, where Franz Kafka was born. I don’t claim to understand much of Kafka’s work, but I am fascinated by many of his short stories. One of these stories is A Little Fable about a mouse, which is brief enough to read in full:

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

While not the most uplifting fable, this story nevertheless reveals an important and challenging aspect of life. It raises the question of free will. Many of us have felt like that mouse at some point, where the walls seemed to be narrowing in on us and then a cat smugly replies that we only need to change direction. Change direction?! Where could we possibly go between a rock and a hard place?

In this week’s Torah portion, a non-Jewish prophet named Bil’am, or Balaam, finds himself in a similar situation. On one side, he has the Moabite King named Balak pressuring him to curse the Israelites so that he can more easily defeat them in battle. On the other side, Bil’am has God who repeatedly sends messages that Bil’am should not curse the Israelites. King Balak is willing to pay a steep price for this curse, but God won’t have it. And poor Bil’am is caught in the middle.

Some might see this as a story about the tension between making a decent living and keeping one’s moral values. After all, the Torah is full of many reminders of the need for justice in business. Bil’am actually sets a good example for ethical business practices. He states multiple times that even if King Balak gave him his house full of silver and gold, he would not be willing to defy God’s instruction.

But this story could have another meaning, too. As Jews, we constantly remind ourselves of the Exodus from Egypt. It is THE central event of Jewish spiritual history. We had no freedom, no options in Egypt. That’s why Egypt was called Mitzrayim, meaning “a narrow place.” The walls were closing in on us in Egypt; and when we tried to escape, Pharaoh chased us to the edge of the sea, like the cat in Kafka’s story. But unlike the mouse in Kafka’s story, we did not get eaten. We miraculously survived, and we remember what it was like to have no options.

When we left that narrow place of Mitzrayim, it wasn’t just Jews who left. The Torah says that the Israelites left with a mixed multitude of people, which reminds us that we have an obligation today to help anyone, Jewish or not, out of a narrow place with no options. As Jews and as Americans, we have a sacred and civic obligation to work for a better society in which all people have more choices and can experience firsthand the great ideal of freedom.

Shabbat shalom.