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Seeing is Knowing

07/06/2017 01:32:33 PM


Last week, I felt a strange sympathy with the Biblical prophet Bilaam.  He traveled on a recalcitrant donkey that crushed his legs.  I flew coach on an AirFrance codeshare with no legroom, and then on an Aeroflot regional subsidiary.   While our stories diverge in some important ways, I learned a valuable lesson from Bilaam’s experience, a lesson that led me to spend a week travelling to parts of the Land of Israel where typical tourists rarely venture.  I’ll be talking about my experiences at a special “Coffee and Conversation” on July 20th at 8 PM, and at many points over the coming months, but I want to start with a reflection here.
Bilaam’s Biblical story is well known.  Strangers come to Bilaam, a prophet for hire, and tell him to go curse a people he does not know.  Once Bilaam arrives, he does not curse the Israelites, but rather blesses them instead.  His employers are not amused.  Each time he offers more glowing praise, and each time his employers suggest that he take a new vantage point, where he can see less and less of the people.  In the end, Bilaam finds a spot where he can see the entire nation, and offers even higher praise.
I’ve always wondered why Bilaam needs to travel to see the people to make his pronouncements, and then why he must change locations.   Don’t we believe that God can be approached anywhere, any time?  The most essential idea of Judaism is that we can relate to something without seeing its physical form!  I would argue that we learn two important lessons from Bilaam.  The first is that sometimes we have to see and hear something ourselves to truly understand it.  The second is that where and how we seek God really does matter.
We have to see and hear something ourselves to truly understand it.  I have visited Israel many times over the years, brought groups, and even lived there.  I’ve been exposed to many different segments of Israeli society.  Like many of us, I rely on conventional news sources for perspectives on complicated relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve spoken often from the Bimah about my hopes for peace, and my fears of violence. Bilaam, flawed as he was taught me that I could neither curse or bless without seeing firsthand.
So, I went.  I spent part of the time in a trip sponsored by an organization called “Encounter.” Encounterdescribes itself as a “a non-partisan educa­tional orga­ni­za­tion culti­vating informed and construc­tive Jewish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”  We went to Bethlehem and Ramallah, areas under control of the Palestinian Authority where the Israeli government normally does not allow Jews to enter, and to neighborhoods of Jerusalem that I had always been warned to avoid.  We met with Palestinian residents of those areas, saw the hardships and joys of their daily lives, heard their perspectives on the challenging relationships between Jews and Arabs, and asked tough questions. 
To complement that experience, I visited several of the same areas on the “Israeli/Jewish” side to get another perspective.  In particular, I spent weekend in Efrat, a Jewish neighborhood, called by some a settlement, in the Judean hills overlooking Bethlehem, staying in the home of one family, visiting with others, even talking with its mayor. I brought the same listening ear and the same tough questions.  I gained new insight into the beliefs and values that led them to make their homes in this area, and the unique blessings and dangers of their lives.
Both of these experiences were incredibly worthwhile and eye-opening.  I realize how much I did not know before, and how much we all have yet to learn,  and I have a much deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that we face in seeking peace.
The second lesson I learned from Balaam was that where we seek God does matter.  Several times during the trip, I had to think carefully about where I could pray. When visiting Palestinian-held areas,the Encounter group could only pray in a closed space where we knew that we would not be seen and identified as Jews.  Later on, on my own, I joined an ultra-orthodox group to ascend the holy Temple Mount, under Moslem control.  Israeli police  searched us for prayerbooks and other ritual objects, and armed guards escorted us, in part to ensure that we did not pray and thereby provoke a riot.  
While I was in Israel, there was an even bigger uproar about where Jews may or may not pray.  Right now, only Orthodox services are allowed at the Kotel.  I can (and did) pray there as an individual, but if I wanted to have a Bat Mitvah for my daughter,  it would be shunted off to a less-developed, cramped side area.  A deal had been made with the Israeli government to expand this area so that it could adequately serve the number of Jews like us who want to pray there, but Prime Minister Netanyahu reneged on his promise, selling out world Jewry to keep ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition.  As an American Jewish community, we need to be vigilant that Israel is not hijacked by a small minority, and instead remains welcoming to Jews like us.  The first step in that process is having a strong and visible presence in Israel.
Our Jewish people faces significant conflict and challenges with its Arab neighbors, dwarfed perhaps only by our internal divisions, and Bilaam's story offers important insight as to how we must approach them.  We can only truly overcome that which we first understand, and we can only understand if we bring a seeing eye and a listening ear.  Sometimes there is no substitute for being there.
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