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The Universal God (Balak 07/20/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Universal God
Sometimes progress is just reverting back to some previous standard or belief. In one particular case, it took us hundreds of years to become, once again, open-minded.
Balak, the king of Moab, is deathly afraid of the Children of Israel who are encamped next to his country while in transit to Canaan. He sends emissaries to hire the famed prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jewish people, hoping that the curse will enable him to destroy this new Middle Eastern power.
“So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian came to Balaam and conveyed Balak’s message to him.
He said to them, “Lodge here for the night, and I will give you an answer when the Lord speaks to me.”
God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?”
Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor the king of Moab has sent them to me, saying…”(Numbers 22: 7-9)
Biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman comments, “It is surely significant that the Torah, a work that comes from Israel, pictures the Creator as communicating with a non-Israelite prophet as well. It is a reminder that the Torah begins with the story of the connection between God and all of the earth.”[1] Even though the Torah sharpens its focus on the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the purpose of the Jewish people is to bring blessing to the whole world.
I love how simply Friedman sees Balaam as a non-Jew that God has a relationship with, and wants to speak to. Friedman sees the God of the Bible as universal, a God interested in the welfare of all creatures.
Yet the Talmud does not have this belief. The Gemara, Brachot 7a, discusses the period of grace that occurred right before Moses received the second pair of Tablets.
Moses saw that he could ask anything from God, so he requested three things:
1.    He requested that the Divine Presence rest upon Israel and never leave.
2.    Moses requested that the Divine Presence not rest upon the nations of the world
3.    He asked to know God’s ways: why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?
The Talmud says that God acquiesced to the first two requests and not to the last one. They see this from Moses’ dialogue with God in Exodus 33:16-17: “For how will I know that I and your people have found favor in your eyes, if not that You walk among us, and that we will be made different from all the nations that are on the face of the earth. And God replied to Moses, that which you have spoken, I will do, for you have found grace in My eyes.”
From here, the Talmud understands indisputably that God is only interested in dwelling in and communicating with the Jewish people.
You will ask, what about Balaam, didn’t God speak with him? Rashi preempts this question by stating that Balaam was not a prophet, rather the recipient of information for the Jewish people’s sake.
There is an old Midrash though, the Tana Debei Eliyahu, that interprets Moses’ dialogue with God differently. Moses asks, “How will I know that we are different from the nations of the world?” God swears “This I will also do for you. For I am giving you a Torah of perfection, where everything is orderly and accessible like a set table with cups and plates and fines wines and delectables. Furthermore, I swear that I will never exchange the Jewish people for another people, nor will they ever be lost from the face of the earth.
The Tana Debei Eliyahu agrees that God promised to dwell among us, to makes us special through the Torah and to never let us disappear. However, God didn’t agree not to dwell or communicate with the other nations. This is consistent with another famous teaching of Tana Debei Eliyahu, “God says, ‘I testify before the Heavens and the Earth, whether an Israelite or a non-Jew, a man or a woman, a slave or a free person, it is only dependent upon the deeds they do and they could be worthy of having the Divine Presence rest upon them.’”
The Tana Debei Eliyahu shares Friedman’s universalistic God. God is able to maintain a special relationship with the Jewish people, while also fostering closeness and love with all the peoples of the Earth. Furthermore, if a person works hard and refines their deeds, they too can be worthy of intimate communion with God.
As we try to work toward a world free of racism and bigotry, with equal opportunity for all, the teachings of the Tana Debei Eliyahu become ever more important. Sometimes progress is just reverting back to a previous disregarded belief.
My dear friends, I will be away on vacation until next Tuesday. If an emergency should arise, please contact my good friend, Rabbi Irwin Huberman, of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, 516-676-5080.
In August, the MHJC High Holiday Choir will start practices. I will send out specific dates and times soon. Please let me know if you would like to join our choir.
[1] Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29393-29398). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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