A Chip off the Old Balak*

Numbers 21

21 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying,

22 Let me pass through thy land: we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well: but we will go along by the king's high way, until we be past thy borders.

23 And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness: and he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel.

24 And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong.

25 And Israel took all these cities: and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the villages thereof.

Numbers 22

2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.

3 And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.

"And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites."

We read this with our mouths agape in shocked amazement. "What Israel had done to the Amorites"!? Barely a dozen verses before, the Torah related explicitly what the Amorites had done to Israel. The Hebrews had approached the Amorites with sincere assurances of their peaceful intentions, pledging not to cause any damage to their land.

Sihon's response had taken the form of an unprovoked attack against the non-belligerant Hebews. Unfortunately, the Hebrews had the bad taste to defeat the aggressors and take possession of the territories from which they had launched their hostile assault.

And of course, Balak summarized this entire process as "all that Israel had done to the Amorites." The event has been removed from its historical and political context, and the victim has been portrayed as the aggressor. Major atrocities of others are overlooked or minimized, while rare and minor crimes of Israel are blown up into international scandals.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Balak, the spiritual progenitor of the CBC News, Reuters, and a long tradition of malicious liars and manipulators of information whose selective version of reality has been utterly distorted by their determination to villify Israel.

Although we might feel much justified indignation about the persistant Israel-bashing in the United Nations, the press and the news media, perhaps we ourselves are not entirely free from Balak's brand of unbalanced judgment in our own day-to-day affairs.

I have encountered examples of this pattern in several different areas of life: Upon being confronted with a real or perceived instance of inconsiderate or unfair treatment, we automatically begin to view the other person as wholly malicious and incapable of decency.

In this way, indiscretions by politicians expand into elaborate conspiracies, employers and employees come to regard each others as implacable antagonists who are determined to advance their selfish agendas at the expense of all other interests.

Perhaps the most familiar arena for the playing out of this destructive dynamic is the family. When a spouse, parent or child does wrong, forgets a birthday or acts inconsiderately, it is common for the opposite number to produce a detailed mental list of remembered misbehaviour, character flaws and faux pas dating back decades. Ultimately, the wronged parties can become persuaded that their partners are nothing more than inconsiderate louts who have contributed nothing of value to the relationship.

A more objective assessment of the situation would probably conclude that more than ninety percent of the time, family members are conducting themselves dutifully and appropriately. The human genius for selective memory, as it recalls the bad times and obscures the good, draws us into a spiral of increasing resentment that can lead to disastrous consequences.

Unfortunately, the same pattern makes itself felt in our relationships with religous and communal institutions. These organizations, often staffed by harried volunteers, try to deal with their members and congregants to the best of their limited abilities, but it is inevitable that mistakes and omissions will occur. Here too, we see all to often that a person will selectively erase all their memories of the years of devoted and consciensious treatment that they have received from the organization, and remember only the one or two mishaps that have marred an otherwise exemplary record. This can lead to indignant resignations from the organizations, pulling children from religious schools, and other forms of overreaction that can cause irreparable damage to essential institutions in the community.

This tendency, no less than the more public or political manifestations of misrepresentation and selective reporting, can be regarded as part of the spiritual heritage of Balak. It is a pernicious habit for which we must maintain constant vigilance.

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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

*Sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, July 12, 2003.