Pinhas in America?
The Torah portion deals with intermarriage, a problem we know all too well today.
Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In 1962 I graduated rabbinical school and entered the army for a two-year stint as a chaplain. Such national service was then still required of all JTS graduates before they could take a pulpit. After completing chaplaincy school in New York, I drove to my first assignment at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I arrived in the late afternoon and decided to visit the Jewish chapel where I would preside without delay. That was my first mistake.
Outside the door paced an agitated, well-dressed gentleman in civilian clothes looking for a Jewish chaplain. I revealed my identity all too quickly and smugly, my second mistake. In the office I would occupy for less than a year (the army would reward my stellar work at Fort Dix by sending me to Korea), he unloaded on me an impassioned account about his daughter who was going to marry a young Greek in basic training at Fort Dix. I couldn't tell exactly whether the father, a wealthy man from Connecticut, was furious because the kid was Christian or poor and uneducated. In fact, the father suspected him of seeking to marry his daughter for her money. He insisted that I call in the kid to disabuse him of his folly, and I, by now floundering in my inexperience, reluctantly agreed. To my surprise, the young man came when I summoned him and turned out to be good-looking and charming. Despite great discomfort, I carried out my futile task and never heard from him or his nemesis again.
In retrospect, my baptism by fire foreshadowed the engulfing crisis of Jewish continuity in our day: Can Jews as individuals avail themselves of the unlimited opportunities of American society and still preserve their group identity? Are the twin goals of integration and survival compatible? As so often, the Torah relates to our predicament.
The end of last week's parashah and the opening of this week's deal with an early instance of integration. After 40 years, a renewed nation of Israel finds itself primed for the conquest of the Promised Land from the territory of Moab in the west. Alarmed, Balak, the king of Moab, calls on the gentile soothsayer Balaam to thwart Israel with his curses: "For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed" (Numbers 22:6).
But Balaam is overwhelmed by the singular beauty of Israel's individuality. He recognizes therein the hope of humanity, a new, far purer, and more wholesome form of nationhood. Try as he might to curse Israel, he can only sing its praises: "There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.... No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel.... Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel.... How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 23:9, 21, 23; 24:5). To Balaam, the young Israel appears without blemish and invincible.