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The Enemy Within and the Enemy Without

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Friday, July 15, 2016

Have you ever heard the expression, “he’s his own worst enemy,”-

tonight I’d like to talk about a variation on that theme.

Rachel and Nathan have done such a great job, explaining and drawing lessons from the main story in this week’s Torah portion, as you will hear tomorrow morning, that they have left me no choice but to deal with the last section, a somewhat distasteful story, one which most Sunday school classes skip over.

Balak fails in his efforts to get the world renowned prophet and magician Balaam to curse the Israelites, but the Israelites still manage to get into trouble, and end up bringing a plague down on the community. Some say this was Balak’s second strategy, under Balaam’s tutelage, but the Torah text blames the Israelites directly. They are the ones who profane themselves by getting involved in illicit relations with the Moabite women and with idolatry. The story in this week’s Torah portion is only nine verses long , hardly enough to get much detail, but one thing is clear. Balak’s wagonloads of gold paid to Balaam to damage the Israelites had no effect, but the blow the Israelites leveled against themselves killed 24, 000.

This conclusion- that weakness within can do more damage than a strong enemy outside, is a theme that repeats in Jewish history. 


The second section of the Tanach, The Hebrew Scriptures,  Neviim,  the 10 books of the Prophets, come to teach us that it was not the strength of the Assyrians or the Babylonians per se that lead to the destruction first of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and then later of the Southern Kingdom of Judea, but really it was the inner corruption Israelite society.  The prophets point to the failures of justice in the days of the divided monarchy, courts unwilling to take up the case of the orphan or the widow, resistance to freeing slaves in the 7th year as Jewish law demands, and other abuses. In the view of the prophets,  it is these failures that bring about the destruction of the Temple. (We know in Jeremiah’s day that when they briefly freed the slaves, they were able, with the freed slaves help, to break the siege, but immediately afterward they re-enslaved the people.)

We see the issue of inner weakness even more so in the days that lead up to the Roman  destruction of the Second Temple. The fighting between Jewish groups was so severe that different factions of Jews burnt each other’s food during the siege.  Many historians note that one could say that this inner weakness was equally responsible for their defeat. Sure the Roman legions were strong, but that things played out as tragically they did was also a result of the inner dynamics of the Jewish community.

I can think of some other examples as well.

Consider the fall of the Soviet Union-was it really our strength that brought about its demise, or was there a very significant role played by the U.S.S.R.’s own inner weakness, inner conflict, corruption, lies and incompetence.

Without getting into politics, we see this in our present presidential campaign. No attack by Trump hurts Hillary Clinton as much as the self-inflicted wounds suffered by her handling of the state department emails, and no attack by Clinton, hurts Donald Trump, so much as his own statements and erratic behavior.

The modern state of Israel too damages itself with internal issues, like the Israeli Defense Forces Chief Rabbi, often doing greater harm than outside enemies can accomplish.

On the personal lever this operates as well. So often we are focused on the outside enemy and less open to seeing the damage we do to ourselves through our own failings. Fear and anxiety can make us focus on an external threat, but completely ignore an internal danger. One of my friends a physician commented on the number of questions she receives about the Zikka virus which for many of us isn’t a relevant threat, while she finds few of her patients motivated to make the lifestyle changes which are likely to make more of a difference to a person’s wellbeing.

 Similarly, Isis is a frightening and dangerous enemy, and this week once again recent deaths make us very aware of the potential threat of terrorism, but it may also be true that better weapons control, attention to those with a history of violent spousal abuse, or issues of mental decompensation after military service, may do more to prevent the tragedies at home than a continuing focus exclusively on attacks from the outside. 

The take away from this parshah, is always the words of the Mah Tovu, words that we sang at the beginning of our service.  “How lovely are your tents O Jacob your dwelling places O Israel”. The strength of our homes and places of study has been our protection As Jews during the centuries, more than any external force. Similarly as individuals the work we do on our own character, can help us to avoid those self-destructive acts that make us our own worst enemies. May this Shabbat bring us peace and safety, within and without.

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