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Parashat Balak 5774 — 07/02/2014

Parashat Balak 5774 — 07/02/2014

She pressed the foot of Bilaam against the wall. (Bamidbar 22:25)
The donkey did so in order to hint to him that he should not go to curse K’lal Yisrael.
The Chafetz Chaim would sometimes also direct sharp words of mussar [reproof] at the gentile nations of the world [and cite this parshah of the Torah]. “When a member of the Jewish nation is in a difficult situation, what does he do? He goes to a tzaddik and asks him to bless him, and he prays to the Creator of the world to save him. This is not the way of members of the other nations of the world.
   “When the Moabite king Balak ben Tzippor felt threatened by the approaching Jewish People, he did not ask Bilaam to bless him so that no harm would befall him. Rather he asked Bilaam to curse the Jews.  Look at how evil Balak was!  Rather than seek a blessing for himself, he preferred to have a curse placed on others!  (Chafetz Chaim)

When Bilam finally gets to Moav and tries to curse Israel for King Balak, Gd only allows him to offer praises.  One of those praises is one of my favorite lines: It is a nation that dwells alone, not reckoned among the peoples. (23:9).  Indeed, in these days we would love to be left alone to develop our Land in peace, but unfortunately we do not yet live in the Messianic era, and “alone” appears to be interpreted by the other nations of the world as “alone and scorned.”  In fact, our Rabbis have pointed out that whenever the Jewish people gets a little too comfortable in exile – that means, better adjusted to living not alone – the nations of the world take it upon themselves to isolate this “foreign element.”  Thus, in the West, where most Jews have completely assimilated into society, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that is beginning (especially in Europe) to force Jewish communities to question their long-term viability in their current form.

It seems that the nations of the world haven’t learned the lesson of Bilam and Balak – they continue to try to curse us, rather than seeking blessings for themselves, and they are most certainly ignoring Gd’s warning: I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. (Gen 12:3) (translation by Artscroll).

Two weeks ago I quoted the Chafetz Chaim on Parashat Korach, where he delineated two types of envy.  The more invidious type was that of Korach, who begrudged Moshe and Aharon their success, while not seeking anything for himself.  It was pure curse, with no blessing attached; in this sense perhaps Korach was like Balak.  In the words of a contemporary poet: [He] Cares not to come up any higher, But rather get you down in the hole that he’s in. (Bob Dylan, It’s All Right, Ma).  Why do people behave this way?  Some destructive behaviors are subtle, and one can see how someone could be fooled into taking those courses of action.  But this is all pain and no gain, why can some not avoid it?

What is the nature of a blessing and what is the nature of a curse?  As a physicist, I tend to think of blessing and good as something that creates order and structure, which can be enjoyed on both practical and aesthetic grounds.  A curse or evil, on the other hand, is the force of entropy, destroying structure and returning the universe towards primal chaos.  Now the problem is, it is much easier to destroy than it is to create.  Watch a child carefully pile up blocks for quite some time, only to knock the whole structure down with a swipe of his hand.  Rome was built over the course of centuries, but it took a relatively short time to destroy.  When Lavoisier was guillotined during the French Revolution, LaGrange said about him,  “It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”  This apparentle inexorable nature of evil is described in physics as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: entropy (disorder) always increases in a closed system.

The reason for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is actually fairly simple.  Macroscopic systems are composed of a large (order of 1023) particles, and there are an astronomical number of ways of arranging those particles within the few macroscopic parameters, like temperature and pressure, that we can specify.  Of the number of arrangements of the particles, only a very small fraction represent any kind of macroscopic order.  Think of the child and his blocks.  How many ways can you strew blocks across the living room floor?  How many ways can you build an orderly tower?  Since in nature, the molecules of a system are in constant motion, if they are put into an orderly state, the odds are that their motion will take the system to one of the much more numerous disorderly states.  Thus, left to itself, the order in a closed system deteriorates.  If we wish to equate evil with destruction of order, we see that “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

Returning to the child and his blocks (in case you haven’t figured it out yet, I just was on skype with my daughter and almost-two-year-old grandson…), we see that the way out of the conundrum is for a “good man to do something.”  The system must be opened up to a source of energy and intelligence.  In the case of the blocks, the child is our deus ex machina.  In the universe, we human beings have been tasked with being the “openings” that allow Gd’s energy and intelligence to flow into the physical world.  In particular, the Jewish people are supposed to be the leaders in this effort to counteract evil, the increase of entropy.  Thus, “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by [us].”

When the Balak’s of the world seek to curse us, they are attempting to seal off the universe from Gd’s beneficent influence; without that influence, they themselves are cursed with destruction.  Unfortunately, they can wreak quite a bit of destruction themselves before they are destroyed.  I would be a lot smarter to bless us, so that we can do our job and bring Gd’s infinite blessings into the world.  Then they too will enjoy Gd’s infinite bounty.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 11: Prophecy and Government (13 November 1990)
The crux of this essay has to do with Gödel’s Theorem, as applied to political systems.  Gödel’s Theorem states that mathematical systems cannot be complete – there will always be true assertions that cannot be proven within the system.  In political systems, it seems that there are always situations that cannot be satisfactorily resolved within the constitution of the system.  In some cases, such as the current deadlock in Congress, the situation is a result of corruption – people trying to hijack the mechanism of government for personal ends rather than for the common good.  As we have seen in the case of every empire in the past, this kind of behavior is naturally self-limiting, and eventually the political system is destroyed.  (I am writing this the day after our Supreme Court further institutionalized the corruption of Citizens United in the McCutcheon case.)  In both the mathematical case and the political case, something must come from outside thee system to cut the Gordian knot that the system itself is unable to resolve.

In the case of the Biblical political system, this outside influence is the prophet, whose direct connection to Gd provides a mechanism by which the transcendent, in which all opposites are harmonized, can infuse that harmony into the irreconcilable differences that are paralyzing the society.  In fact, R. Steinsaltz explicitly states that what we need to do when our systems “freeze up,” is to contact the transcendent, Divine basis of Creation.  In our tradition, prayer is the way we do this.  But prayer is more than just talking to Gd.  If we want Gd to answer our prayers, we also need to listen.