Shaarei Shamayim

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BALAK 5772

BALAK 5772

(with gratitude to Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg)


Someone once said to me after a funeral, “Rabbi, I listen to your eulogies and you’re always saying how this person is so special and that person is outstanding and this one is unique. How can everyone be so great?” And then I remembered what my colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, once told me he answered to a similar question, and so I replied, “Don’t worry, when it comes your turn, I’ll lie about you, too!” The truth is that I never lie when I give a eulogy. It’s just that I take to heart the words of Bilaam in today’s parsha. And because of his words, today I have something nice to say about Queen Elizabeth.


Last month Queen Elizabeth began her diamond jubilee celebration —the 60th anniversary of her coronation. The British people really are enamored with her and her royal family. I feel it when I speak to Cheryl’s family and other’s from London. The 1st 2 days of the celebration were televised all over the world. How did I feel about the celebration? I couldn’t have cared less! The monarchy has no special meaning to me. It’s just perpetuating a myth that we Americans rejected in 1776. For me, the Queen and her family have come to personify a very modern family—a “dysfunctional family”—not really worthy of celebrating.


But if I am honest with myself—and in light of my recent visit to Israel—I have to admit that my negative feelings about the Queen and the royal family are based on one very significant fact: neither she nor any member of her family have ever paid an official visit to the State of Israel. While never part of the Commonwealth, Israel—or Palestine, as it was called at the time—like India and many other countries, used to be under British rule. The British were not too friendly to the Jews and openly helped the Arabs. But that mandate ended in 1948, and now 64 years later, neither the Queen, her husband nor any member of her family have ever made an official visit to this country they once ruled. Now, it’s not as if the Queen has had difficulty in traveling over these past 60 years of her rule. During her reign she has made 261 official visits overseas including such far away countries as Iceland, Malta, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana…all so important countries! But not to Israel. No other country has been snubbed by the royal family like Israel has been. 


And yet, having told you this, I am not lying when I tell you that I wish the Queen well and I extend to her wishes of mazel tov on the 60th celebration of her reign. You see, when I spoke with some Jewish Londoners, I could not get over the positive feelings they have for the Queen: a Queen for whom they recite a prayer in their synagogues every Shabbos, a Queen whom they toast at every festive occasion, a Queen whose celebration they participated in with a full heart. The fact that she and her family have never visited Israel is explained by some as being the fault of the British Foreign Office, whose directions guide her.


But even those who do not accept this excuse acknowledge that the Queen and her family have had a very cordial relationship with the Jews of Britain…something not to be taken for granted by students of history. The fact that all the males in her family have been circumcised by a mohel…the fact that her husband’s mother was recognized by Yad Vashem as a “righteous gentile” for saving a Jewish family in wartime Athens…the fact that in her role as Head of the Church of England, she has warmly welcomed people of all faiths…the fact that on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Queen met with a group of Holocaust survivors and stayed way beyond the allotted time to give each survivor her focused attention…the fact that Prince Charles has his own blue velvet yarmulke with a royal crest on it in silver to wear at Jewish weddings…the fact that her grandson’s new bride and future queen, Kate Middleton, has a Jewish maternal grandmother (and that makes her Jewish)…that’s not such a bad record. And that is why I can wish her at 86 that she should live until 120! Sure there’s some bad. The challenge is to see the good as well!


We’ve been reading from the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, for the past 7 weeks and in all but one of these Torah portions, the Jewish people fomented one sort of rebellion or another. In spite of all this, when Balak hires the heathen prophet Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, Gd only allows blessings to spew forth from his mouth, like the famous verse, Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, “How good are thy tents of Jacob, thy tabernacles ‘O Israel.”


Yes, the Jewish people can be difficult. But there is so much good in them and Gd chose to see and focus on the good. When the spies visit Israel in one of last month’s Torah portions (Shlach), Moses’ mandate to them was to go to the land of Israel and see, Hatovah hi im ra-a, which we usually translate as, “Is (the land) is good or if is it bad?” But with the change of one letter—a silent letter—the alef of “im” to an ayin—the “if is changed to “with” and it then reads, “Is there some good with the bad?” 10 of the spies, unfortunately could only see the bad.


This is a question all of us should ask of ourselves about our own relationships. When couples come to me in crisis, each spouse comes with a list of complaints about the other. We all have our lists about our spouses, our siblings, our children, our parents and our friends. But we must constantly ask ourselves, Hatovah hi im ra-a, “Isn’t there good with the bad? Yes, we must deal with the bad, but isn’t there more good than bad?


Mitt Romney announced this week that he will visit Israel this summer. I’m sure this was meant to call attention to the fact that President Barak Obama has not paid an official visit to Israel as President. It’s hard to believe or understand! He’s been to Turkey and Iraq and Saudi Arabia. His 1st visit as president was to Egypt. What’s his problem? And why place the onus for the absence of peace on Israeli settlements, when the Palestinians are the ones that refuse to negotiate. I could go on and on but that can’t blind me to the fact that, in many ways, Obama has been supportive of Israel: maintaining an exceptionally high rate of military and economic support to Israel…working against Palestinian statehood acceptance at the Security Council…being at the forefront of gaining economic sanctions against Iran. Has he done enough? Is he a real friend? That’s for you to decide when you go to the polls to vote. But to call him an enemy of Israel is similar to what the spies did in viewing Israel—they couldn’t see the good among the bad. 


This is a lesson for us as Americans to keep in mind now as the Presidential campaign heats up. For the next few months you’re not going to hear much good about America…you’ll hear that the economy is sagging…how we’re not respected around the world…how China is surpassing us. You’ll hear if Obama is re-elected things will get worse and if Romney is elected things will return to as bad as they were under George Bush. You’ll hear that the system is corrupt; Washington is no good, the PACs are ruining our democratic ways. In hearing all this, don’t forget to ask yourself: Hatova hi im ra-a, “is there not some good with the bad?”


In this week of July 4th celebrations I have to tell you that there is plenty of good. I’ll just give you the most obvious example—but one too often overlooked. Look who is running for President: an African American and a Mormon. Wow, wow, wow! Only in America! And even in America it would have been unheard of just 10 years ago.


I have seen a lot of this great country. I have been in the most northeast corner and the most southwest corner, the most southeast corner and the most northwest corner and many places in between. I love to stop and talk to people everywhere I go—Jews and gentiles, rich, poor and blue collar middle America. These are the people who—despite our economy—year after year vote for Congressmen and Senators who give billions of dollars of aid and support to Israel, and you hardly ever hear a word of complaint from them about it. Only in America! May all of them live until 120 just like the Queen!


Recently the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews addressed the Queen on behalf of Anglo-Jewry and when he wished her “until 120 years” she had a puzzled look on her face. What did that mean? It was then explained to her that it was our people’s way of offering thanks and prayers that she may continue for many years in good health and strength. 


I wish the same to all of you…all of you who I will never have to lie about because there is definitely something good in each and every one of you. May you live until 120 and always see the good.  Amen!


                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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