Although the #Brexit vote about whether Britain would remain a member of the European Union took place a few weeks ago I am still reeling from the result. I’m disappointed by what happened, I'm upset about the way the debate place, and I'm scared for the future not just of Britain, but also of the whole world. I was most depressed by the way that the leave campaign stoked up people's fear of immigrants and “the other” as a way of driving people towards voting against remaining members of the European Union. This fear of the other was powerful in Britain, it's powerful around the world, and it's powerful in our Torah.
This week’s Torah portion begins: ‘Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, "Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field"’ (Num 22:2-4). Balak didn't know who the Israelites really were, he had just heard about what had happened to the Amorites, and as a result he was fearful for himself and his people.
What Balak didn’t know is that in last week's Torah portion, before Israel came upon the Amorites, ‘Israel now sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, "Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway until we have crossed your territory"’ (Num. 21:21-22). The Israelites essentially offered to pass through the land peacefully, with no conflict and no use of the Amorite resources. Unfortunately Sihon refused, and as a result of that refusal Israel engaged the Amorites in battle.
It didn't have to be that way. Sihon could have said “yes”. I would guess that his reluctance to allow the Israelites through the country was related, once again, to the fear of the other. He was fearful of another people coming into his land even though they had committed not to use any of his resources and not to be a drain on their economy.
Unfortunately fear of the other is a very powerful emotion. But in our global society we encounter others be they of race, religion, or nationality all of the time, and the important thing for us is to remember that we shouldn't be afraid of them. In this week’s Torah portion we see how curse can be transformed into blessing when Bilam attempts to curse the Israelites, but can only bless them. In most cases our encounters with people who are different from ourselves are not a curse but a blessing; an opportunity to grow, to learn, to develop and to form new relationships. We should not be afraid of the other, but we should see the other as a blessing. Had Balak been able to do this perhaps things would have worked out differently for the Moabites.