By Rabbi Shawn Zell
No cigar for the Torah personality of this coming Shabbat, the heathen diviner Balaam son of Beor. As exceptional as he was with his enduring Mah Tovu, when he exclaimed, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob. Your dwelling places Israel”, Balaam would have been even more prophetic, had he proclaimed, “Hinei Mah Tov U’Mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad” or How good and pleasant when brothers live together in unity”(Psalm 133:1). By doing so, the invoker (Balaam) would have been invoked any number of times by future generations.
As we quake in the wake of Israel’s precarious “Humpty Dumpty” government, I am reminded of a specific period of turbulent time in pre-state Israel, three-quarters of a century ago, toward the end of June 1946. It was then, in response to Operation Agatha, better known to us as Black Sabbath, where the British troops, accompanied by police raided the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) headquarters in Jerusalem, the Sochnut office in Tel Aviv, and other institutions, such as the Histadrut (National Trade Union) confiscated vital documents reflecting years of careful planning. Whatever it took, those documents had to be retrieved. And so, three disparate groups, Haganah, Irgun, and Lechi put their differences and quarrels aside, and coordinated efforts to raid three storage facilities, where the documents were stored. Initially, the operation was a success. Intransigence on the part of the British however, resulted in the tragic bombing of the King David Hotel, and the senseless loss of innocent life. In no way, would the British permit themselves to heed any warnings and follow any instructions of an audacious ragtag group of Zionists. Had it not been for the sanctimonious attitude of the British, these fledgling Zionist groups would not only have succeeded in their mission, but they would also have succeeded in asserting that unity was possible, and that was good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together.
Reflecting on the Cuban Missile Crises of October 1962, conventional wisdom has it that the turning point of the predicament, was when U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, remarked to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked”. Although I am unable to substantiate it, my recollection of what took place is somewhat different. On the evening of October 27th, the Attorney General (Bobby Kennedy), unannounced, got into his car and drove over to the home Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States. After being invited in, the A.G. began by reminding the Soviet Ambassador, that their children attended the same school. Continuing on this theme, Kennedy, with the Missile Crises very much on the minds of both statesmen, rhetorically asked Dobrynin: “Is this the type of future we want to hand over to our children”. At that moment, it was two fathers talking. Two fathers who were able to put politics aside for a moment, in that they saw eye to eye concerning the common goal they shared for their children. While the Book of Psalms was in all likelihood the farthest thing Kennedy and Dobrynyn had in mind, instinctively both appreciated how good and pleasant it was for brethren to dwell together.
I was reminded of the proverb Hinei Mah Tov U’Mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad a few days ago, when Juneteenth, a new federal holiday was introduced into this country. Although I missed out on studying American history in school, it seems to me, that as affecting and moving as the actual ending of slavery in this country is, it is what took place at the Appomattox Court House a few months earlier, that is deserving of recognition. It was then, that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, thereby paving the path for June 19, 1865, a date that has lived on in the history of Black enslavement in this nation. It was April 9th. 1865, when these United States earned its reputation of “one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”. It was then, that insurrection had ended. It was then, that this country should have adopted the moniker Hinei Mah Tov U’Mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. Imagine if you, if every President of this country, subsequent to Abraham Lincoln, independent of political affiliation, had the temerity to remind the citizens of this country “how good and pleasant it when brothers live together in unity”?
For Balaam, it was no cigar. For others, both the phrase Balaam used, recorded in the Book of Numbers as well as the phrase Balaam neglected to use, from the Book of Psalms were readily dismissed. Perhaps the time has come for our leaders to take a second look at what can be learned from “how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together”. Let our leaders put that in their pipes and smoke it.