Balak 5767 — 3 Sermons


There are religions that claim they have the only true access to God. Let’s face it, pretty much any revealed religion will of necessity claim that their prophet is the greatest and bestest prophet. Many, if not most, will claim that their prophet is either the last prophet, or the ONLY prophet who really got God’s message right.

This week’s Torah reading, Balak, forces us Jews to have a little humility on this subject. For the Moabite king Balak tries to hire a prophet, Bilam. And this prophet Bilam is not only not Jewish, but Balak hires him to try and harm the Jewish people.

How do we know that Bilam is a real prophet, and not some kind of scam artist? The Torah tells us that God spoke to Bilam; in fact the Torah records several conversations between Bilam and God. Not only that, if you want to talk about a need for humility, God not only talks to this non-Jew Bilam, he makes an appearance to a talking donkey. Here I am a rabbi, still waiting for a dramatic personal appearance from God, and She appears to a talking donkey!

There is a hugely important meta-message here: you don’t have to be Jewish to talk to God. Heck, it seems you don’t even have to be human! Our God is God to the entire universe; if He is God to the entire universe, that means He is going to talk to some of his other children as well. And yes, God may tell us He loves us best, but how do we know He doesn’t say the same thing to some of His other children? Are there any parents here who have told more than one of their children that they love him or her the best?

Our lack of exclusivity – our lack of claiming the only path to God – makes it sort of remarkable that anyone would choose to be Jewish. If we say that there are other paths to approach God, and other religions claim that theirs is the ONLY path to God, why not go with one of them other religions? Sort of covering your bases, not unlike Pascal’s famous gamble.

There is a Chasidic teaching which says that when a person converts to Judaism, it is an indicator that the person really has a Jewish soul that just somehow ended up in a non-Jewish body. One of my conversion students says this really described his experience – for years he felt that he had a Jewish soul trapped in a Gentile body—in other words, he was a “trans-Gentile.”

On the other hand, the Torah tells us that when God told Abraham to head off to the land of Canaan, Avram took with him “the souls that they made in Haran.” The Midrash explains that the souls that they made in Haran are people that Abraham and Sarah converted to Judaism before he even set out for Canaan.

Whether they were Jewish souls finding their way home, or souls that were made Jewish through study and commitment, I am delighted that we were able to honor seven Jews by choice this morning, some of “the souls that were made in Toledo.” I wanted to honor these people in particular today, my last Shabbat at B’nai Israel, because I feel that these new “members of the tribe” are part of my legacy and part of the influence I’ve had on the community, and they will be here as part of the B’nai Israel community long after I’ve left for Israel. R. Yosef of Ishbitz said “The rabbi only raises the ladder. The Jews must do the must do the climbing on their own.” These are people who have been climbing the ladder on their own.

Of course conversion only directly affects a relatively small number of people. As I was reflecting on my legacy at B’nai Israel, I was thinking about how I have tried to bring “the word of God” to the congregation through my sermons and divrei Torah. One of the big challenges of being a rabbi is that unlike Abraham or Moses – or even the non-Jewish prophet Bilam – or even Bilam’s amazing talking donkey – I don’t know any rabbis who claim to be prophets. So our efforts to bring the word of God to people are all through second hand sources. We read the Torah and the rest of the Bible, we study the Talmud and we pore over the words God spoke to other people and how the rabbis through the ages have understood those encounters between God and Man. And we share our best efforts to understand what it is that God is asking of us.

I realized that over the last three years I have given something on the order of 150 sermons. Is it possible to summarize? What would be my “ethical will” to the congregation, the message I hope people would remember?

One of my professors in rabbinical school said that every rabbi really only has two or three sermons – every sermon he or she gives is simply a variation on those themes.

So what are my three sermons?

It turns out it was not an easy question for me to answer. At first, I thought perhaps my three sermons reflected what I believe is the best executive summary of what Judaism is all about—a passage which we coincidentally read from today’s Haftorah. The words of the prophet Micah, who said עֲשוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם-אֱ-להֶיךָ “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

But the other day I was discussing this subject with someone who has heard probably at least 120 of those 150 sermons – and I realized that while Micah is a good summary of the essence of Judaism, it doesn’t really describe my three sermons. For one thing, I talk about Israel a lot, and Israel doesn’t really fit into those three themes.

It may be you’ve heard a different message – which is fine, and I’d love to hear what you heard – but I think my three sermons are as follows:

1) V’ahavta et H” E-lohecha, Love the Lord your God.

2)  V’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha, Love your neighbor as yourself.

3) Love Israel.

Love God. For me, this is the primordial commandment. God is our source. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said that God gives just one command with specific content: “Love me!” All subsequent law “turns into execution of the one initial commandment to love Him.”

The Chasid says that the purpose of existence is to achieve devekut, a cleaving to God, a joining together with the oneness and unity of God, the mystical experience of truly feeling yourself deeply connected with the Holy One. I have no idea how to spark that longing for God in another person. But for those who have that longing – which most people have at least at some point in their lives – I have tried to show that following the mitzvot is our path for connecting with God – it’s our path to discovering the love of God, and the love FROM God that lies latent within us all. Many Jews, myself included, have gone looking for God in all sorts of other places – especially Buddhism and other Eastern religions, in pilgrimages to India or other places where we think someone has the secret. But like the man in the Chasidic story who goes through all sorts of trials and tribulations to go hunting for a treasure in Warsaw, only to be told it’s hidden in his house back in the village, the treasure is right here in Judaism, in this synagogue, in these holy books. We just need to learn how to open our eyes and our hearts.

Rambam, Maimonides asks how can the Torah command us to love God? Is it possible to make yourself feel love? Rambam says the path to loving God is through studying the natural world. When we can marvel at the intricacies and extent of God’s creation, Rambam says we will naturally be drawn to a love of God.

It may be a little chutzpadik, but I’ll disagree with Rambam. I think contemplating the wonders of creation might draw one toward an awe of God – but I’m not sure it will draw one to love of God. You don’t necessarily love everyone who really really impresses you. Barry Bonds is really impressive, but who loves him?

And the commandment says to love God. Not to believe in God. Not even to serve God. To love God means to have a personal relationship with God. Which Jews accomplish through doing mitzvot with kavanah – through following the commandments with clarity and intent. Especially prayer and study, and talking to God like you would talk to a friend.

If you love God, even a little, you will be drawn to the second commandment I focus on – v’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself. If you can see God’s oneness as the ineffable oneness and unity of the universe, you see that God is not just found “outside,” but rather God is found “inside.” And God is inside not just you, but everyone around you as well.

Loving your neighbor and seeing the Godly in your neighbor means that just as you want to be treated right, you should treat other people right. All of my sermons on ethical issues – whether giving charity, bringing awareness to what’s happening in Darfur or protesting the use of torture – stem from this one commandment.

There are some rabbis who read “rei’acha,” neighbor, narrowly, and say we are only commanded to love our fellow Jew. I reject this approach, because at the very beginning of the Torah we are told that everyone is created b’tzelem E-lohim, in the image of God – not just Jews. Therefore, we are all God’s children, and it’s only logical that God would want all of us to get together and love one another.

But I don’t believe that “love your neighbor” necessarily means loving everyone equally. I see our love for others as spreading out in a series of concentric circles – we love our family the most as we are closest to them, we love the people of our community – our fellow congregants, etc., more than we love strangers, we love fellow Jews more than we love others because we have a sort of extended family relationship, we might love fellow Americans more than others because we share in building this country, and so on. But the commandment to love your neighbor never diminishes to zero. Even though Rambam says that we are commanded to take care of the poor in our own family first, and the poor in our own community before the poor in other communities, we are still not exempt from caring about and supporting those who are most distant from us.

So if neighbor means everyone, why should Israel be so important? Isn’t that a little particularistic in the face of the universal values I preach?

For nearly 2000 years, the Jewish people’s ideals have been lived out with no real autonomy and no real political control. We had ideas on how society should be organized and conducted, but no country in which to put those ideas into practice. Israel is the ultimate challenge to our Jewish values: OK, we now have a country where we are a majority. How do we put those values into practice? What kind of society do we create that is guided by the values we derive from Torah and the Jewish tradition? Can we put our money where our mouth is?

Jewish life in the diaspora faces incredible challenges. There are many countries that have seen precipitous declines in their Jewish populations because of assimilation on the one hand, and anti-Semitism or economic hardship on the other.  Life in Israel has challenges, of course, but they are challenges of an entirely different order. We have a place of our own, a place we can call home. Assimilation and intermarriage are virtually non-existent. We can visit Israel and “walk the Bible,” literally and figuratively. We can read accounts in the Tanakh while standing at the places where those events happened. And we walk the Bible by putting into practice the values we learn from our tradition.

When I criticize Israel – and as you know, I find no shortage of things to criticize, from the way Israelis abuse the environment to the way they treat minorities to the way they conduct the occupation – it comes from a place of love of Israel. The Midrash teaches that love without criticism is not love. If you feel love, it means you care enough to want things to be done right.

Three sermons served 150 different ways:

Love God.

Love Your Neighbor.

Love Israel.

I’ve probably written at least 900 single spaced pages on these topics – a pretty hefty book. Yet certainly not an exhaustive treatment. I will continue to think and write about these issues from my new home in Jerusalem, and I invite you to subscribe to my blog at if you are interested in continuing to read what I have to say.

In a month, you will have a new rabbi, and I’m sure he will have three sermons very different than mine. I pray, for his sake and yours, that it will be a good shidduch, that you will both be happy with each other, and that Congregation B’nai Israel will continue to go from strength to strength in this beautiful new home, which is now barely broken in. Lauri, Katherine, Lizzy, Devorah, and I hope to see many of you in Israel over the coming years.

L’shana ha’ba’ah birushalayim! Next year in Jerusalem!


Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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