Over the past recent weeks and months you and I have experienced contentious electioneering and campaigning both on State and Federal levels. We have heard rhetoric which has verged on the hostile. I have noticed, especially in our local and state campaigning cycle, candidates vehemently championing their church observance and attendance. If it were not so offensive and sad it might almost be humorous to see certain candidates trying to ‘outchurch’ others. It is ironic to see and to hear on TV expressions of church attendance as being a basis for goodness and qualifications of public service when the intimations are that the opponent is not attending church and therefore unqualified or worse. Put bluntly- ‘how can you say you are such a good person as to deserve the public’s trust when you impugn your opponent’s character?
In this week’s Parsha known as Balak, named for a Canaanite king who is afraid of the approaching Israelites, we learn of a pagan prophet named Bil-am. King Balak encourages prophet Bil-am to curse the Israelites with the hope that the Israelites will become weakened and demoralized, making it easier for King Balak to prevent their entry Into the Promised Land.
Strikingly, Bil-am is introduced to us as a pagan. Although he is not part of the Israelites, he is described as a prophet of God. How powerful it is for Torah to attest to God’s having direct communication with a pagan! Unlike certain modern communities in the 21st century which delegitimize people of different religious perspectives, Torah seems to accept Bil-am at least until he violates God’s trust, not on religious grounds, but by choosing to curse others. It is Bil-am’s misuse of words which is his undoing; a man who is gifted with hearing the Word of God loses his identity and his life because of his refusal to use his words appropriately with his fellow man.
Can we learn from our Torah to use our words constructively? And remembering that our public servants do represent us both symbolically and politically, if they misuse words, is it only their responsibility or have we encouraged this misuse in some way?