From Where I Stand

By Rabbi Yossy Goldman

They did not greet you with bread and water and . . .they hired Bilam.

–Devarim 23:5

What do we cherish? What do we truly value? What do we make time for? There is a rather curious juxtaposition of ideas in our parashah this week. The Torah cautions us against allowing Ammonite and Moabite men to convert and join the Jewish people. The reasons? First, “because they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you were leaving Egypt.” And second, “because they hired Bilam . . . to curse you.”

Such a diverse set of crimes lumped together in one verse! In the same breath we are told to shun them because they didn’t play the good host when we were a tired and hungry nation trudging through the desert from Egypt and because they hired the heathen prophet Bilam to curse us. How can we possibly compare these two reasons? The first is simply a lack of hospitality, while the second is nothing short of attempted genocide.

The answer is that the two are indeed interrelated. One enforces the other; one proves the sinfulness of the other. If it were merely that they didn’t show us any generosity during our journey, we could possibly justify it by their own poverty. Perhaps Ammon and Moav were in an economic depression. Maybe they were broke and therefore were not in a position to offer hospitality. If they didn’t have enough for themselves, how can we expect them to feed others?

But when we see that they hired Bilam the prophet to curse the Jewish people, then we know that money was not the problem. Do you think Bilam came cheap? Bilam was a very expensive consultant. “A houseful of gold and silver” was his asking price. If you found money for him, you could have found a few shekels to give some bread and water to tired, hungry travelers. The fact that they were prepared to pay such exorbitant fees to Bilam proves the enormity of their crime.

Ammon and Moav may be extinct, but their legacy lives on. One of the root causes of the Middle East quagmire is the Palestinian problem. So many live in squalor in refugee camps. It is truly a rachmanus, a terrible pity and a crying shame. But why have these people not been accommodated by their brethren over all these years? From the early years, Israel always welcomed Jewish refugees from Arab lands, from Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq. Later, they absorbed many Ethiopian and Russian Jews. Israel is a small country with limited resources, yet no Jew is refused entry. Everyone is welcomed.

So, tiny Israel can do it and the combined land and wealth of the Arab world cannot? Saudi Arabia builds palaces and engages in all sorts of royal excess. Have you been to the Dubai airport? They also now boast the richest horse race in the world! Billions are being spent on flippant luxuries, but to help their poor Palestinian brothers and sisters, nobody is home!

Sadly, we have a problem in our own community too. How often is a Jew approached for a worthy cause and he pleads poverty but the very next day he blows a fortune at a casino! We are too busy to come to a lecture at the shul, but to kill a night playing poker we have plenty of time.

I am reminded of the fellow who asked me if he really needed to put up mezuzahs on all his doorways inside his house. When I answered that he did, he gave a huge krechtz. “Oy, Rabbi, but I just built a new house with eighteen rooms. Do you realize how much the mezuzahs are going to cost?”

We are now in the month of Elul, a time for introspection and correction before Rosh Hashanah, our Judgment Day. Let us reflect on how we spend our money and our time, and let us try our best to be consistent and honorable to G‑d and our fellow men and women.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.

 

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