Balak, Balaam, Blessings, Curses, and Authority

This week in the annual cycle of Torah readings Jews are reading parsha Balak. The first part of the parsha tells the story of Balak who feels threatened by the Israelites and thus seeks out Balaam to curse them. This does not, however, go according to his plan. Balaam does not immediately go with them, but instead tells Balak’s messengers to wait overnight so he can sleep on it. Balaam is told by God not to curse the Hebrews, indeed, he is told not to go with the initial group of Moabites. Eventually he does go, but is stopped by an angel he can’t see, but his donkey can. His donkey shows some sense and doesn’t try to pass the sword wielding angel on the road. Balaam gets a bit annoyed with his donkey after the donkey stops and lies down with Balaam still on it. Further, when Balaam threatens the donkey the angel appears before Balaam and tells him again not to curse the Israelites, but instead to “say nothing except what I tell you.”(Num 22:35) Balaam continues on his way and meets Balak. Three times he is called on to curse the Israelites and three times he blesses them. Balak gets more and more irate about it.

What images and ideas does this story bring to mind today, in 2015, the week after the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality making same gender marriages legal across the United States? As more and more jurisdictions are recognizing not only the rights of those who are gay and lesbian, but also protecting rights on the basis of gender identity and expression? For religious conservatives this is a tragedy. For those of us who fall under the wide LGBTTQIA+ umbrella they are victories. As I read the chapter in Torah Queeries on this parsha I was struck by the relationship between authority and power that the author talks about.

The discussion of this in Torah Queeries looks at how both Balak and Balaam have authority, but when they try to exercise power based on their authority they are unable to do so.(p. 214) Balaam tries to exercise power over his donkey, but is unable to. Balaam tries to exercise power over the Israelites, and fails. How does this relate to recent advances in LGBT rights? The paralell is in the responses of conservative, mostly Christian, groups to the rulings in the United States and to a lesser extent those in Canada. The religious leaders hold authority in their faith communities, both on a denominational level and at a congregational level. They feel that they should also hold authority and power over those who do not follow their interpretation of their faith. They therefore attempt to exert power over those who disagree with them, even going so far as to explicitly state that they will fight against the ruling of the Supreme Court. Yet the marriages are taking place. Health care and other rights are being extended to trans people. They are like Balak, attempting to curse those they see as enemies, yet being rebuffed by those who who have power to make change in the world. In the context of western democracies, this is a case where the power of people has come to the fore in making change happen.

Authority is something that can be taken through power, but works best when those who are under the people or person in authority support the person in their authority. Here in Canada we see this in the relations between indigenous peoples and the federal government. The federal government holds power over, and authority over indigenous peoples and First Nations through the Indian Act and other pieces of legislation. Yet, this authority has been used in what has been described as cultural genocide, a term I agree with, in order to bring about a colonialist ideal in Canada. Power is now being taken back with the rise of the Idle No More movement and the increasing awareness by those of us who are decedents of, or are ourselves immigrants to Canada. How this awareness of our power to stand up to authority will play out is still to be seen. There is an expected federal election this coming fall and how this plays out will, in large part, depend on which political party forms the government.

In Ontario we see religious authorities fighting against changes to the health and physical fitness curriculum for Ontario schools. The primary argument being that parents were not consulted in its development. In reality the arguments focus on the changes to the sexual health component of the curriculum and its discussion of gender identity, homosexuality, and aspects that on the surface seem to reduce the power of parents over their children. One objection is that it includes language telling young people to seek out a trusted adult when it comes to reporting abuse. The argument from those opposed to it is that parents  should be explicitly named as people to turn to. Raising the point that parents are, all too often, not someone the young person can trust challenges the power and authority of the parent. Yet, for many young people who are exploring their sexual orientation, gender identity, or both, parents are the last person they can safely talk to about it. Even today youth are thrown out of their home by their parents because they come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, etc.

Perhaps when we encounter situations where we have authority, but no power, or power but no authority, we ought to reflect on the experiences of Balak and Balaam. Look at what is driving us and why we are seeking what we are seeking. Are we acting out of prejudice? Are we acting out of love for our neighbour? Are we acting in order to repair the world? Are we acting to hurt others? Understanding this within ourselves will help us to understand the other and open up what will hopefully be a dialogue where we can come to know our neighbours and, possibly, even to love them even when we differ from them in significant ways.

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