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Balak 5778

June 28, 2018

Blessing in Boise : A Balak Moment
A D’var Torah for Balak
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval (AJR ’06)

Sometimes it seems that we live in a world filled with curses.  In this country of late, we have been witness to cruel treatment of the most vulnerable among us, and have been immersed in hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering.   From fear, can come anger.  From fear can come an impulse to curse. 

So it is in this week’s parsha, in a scene sadly familiar to us Jews.  Balak, king of Moab, fearing the Israelites, loathing these outsiders, wants to curse them.   Balak has choices about how to deal with his fear: he has a choice between cursing the others, or having his own people protected and blessed.  Coming from a place of hatred and negativity, he opts for the curse and hires Balaam the sorcerer to carry out the task.  But his attempts are thwarted by God.  The curses of his hired magician Balaam are not only stopped;  rather, his curses are transformed into blessings.  

Imagine if we could find ways to take the curses of our world, and not only defeat or suppress them, but turn them into blessings? 

On a recent vacation out west, I experienced just such a transformation, of curse to blessing.  Passing through Boise, Idaho, my husband and I visited a tourist site called the Anne Frank Human Rights memorial.   We stopped there expecting to see a statue, a plaque, a token remembrance; we expected a momentary visit.  After all, what kind of Anne Frank memorial would one expect to find in Idaho, where Jews comprise .1% of the population, a state with a reputation for white supremacist activity and an almost completely homogenous population, as we had noticed at the 4th of July parade that same morning?   

As it happened, in Boise, Idaho of all places, I was as moved as I have ever been at a Holocaust memorial.   The Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights memorial is an outdoor space, the city calls it “an educational park, an inspirational and contemplative site.”   It is almost an acre in size, prominently located on a much-traveled bike path in the main city park.   The site is lushly landscaped, with waterfalls and pools, stone and native plants, through which, the architect said – he wanted to convey a message of hope.   

At the center stands a life-size statue of Anne Frank. She leans out of a window, looking from the family’s stifling hiding place to the open air.  Around her, a network of gardens and plazas is filled with quotations on plaques, some from Anne Frank and other Shoah writers like Elie Wiesel.  Other quotes come from all over the world, and from all of human history.  Side by side are words from poets, presidents, activists, ancient sacred texts, children and philosophers, the famous and the unknown. 

These quotes tell of so many curses – genocides and cruelty, slavery and oppression.  Yet many of the quotes are also passages of hope:  about freedom, justice and human dignity.

From Maya Angelou, for example, we read these lines. “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”     Moses is there: “Let my people go.”   Native American leaders, civil rights activists and the chilling letter of the Rwandan pastors to their church president:  “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.”

One area of the park is dedicated to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.   The focus is universal, but retains an emphasis on the unique events of the Holocaust and Jewish suffering. 

A poster at the site explains how this memorial came to be in Boise, Idaho, of all places.  In 1995, an Anne Frank traveling exhibit became a kind of sensation – it was estimated that fully half the residents of the state came to see it.  A group of citizens were so moved by the exhibit, by people’s response to it, and by what they described as Anne Frank’s faith in humanity, that they determined to create something permanent.  Seven years later, the memorial opened, funded by private individuals after a massive effort undertaken by this group of Jews and non-Jews alike.  

 The park is now very much a part of the community – schoolchildren visit and learn there and it is the venue for diverse human rights-related programs.  Local Boise people we met, learning that we were Jews, made a point of proudly telling us about this place. 

In Boise we saw curse transformed into blessing.  The Shoah – one great curse of our people, the murder of Anne Frank and 6 million Jews, and all of the genocides and atrocities recalled at this site, are used to remember and to educate, to learn about tolerance and about freedom and human rights.  Spending time there, one had to confront a world of evil.  It was hard. But we came away feeling inspired and hopeful, at the response to all the curses and at the beauty of the place, all the more so because it was created and maintained mostly by people who were not personally connected to these events.   These people learned Anne Frank’s story and opened themselves to her humanity and to the shared humanity of us all.   Then they responded and acted to build something.  

We can choose to turn curse into blessing if we look at what and who is really before us and around us, which is more than the ugliness we see in the news.  Certainly, that ugliness needs to be seen and confronted.  But we may also take note of, and learn from, the many who increase good in the world, who often do not make the news. 

As Anne Frank wrote from her place of horror:  “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.   Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

As Jews, our mandate is to feel the pain of those who suffer, to see the curses of our world and then to do all that we can to transform them into blessings.
Rabbi Kieval (AJR ’06) serves as Rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York.