At the request of our congregants, we are reposting Adas Emuno President Lance Strate's D'Var Torah from this past Friday night, July 22nd, on Parsha Balak:
The English physicist Isaac Newton was also an important influence on the Enlightenment early on, and later on, one of the founders of the American republic, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a scientist, and made major discoveries concerning electricity. He didn't know that electricity was created by a flow of subatomic particles when he flew his kite in a thunderstorm and caught lightning in a bottle. But that glowing key in a bottle was an important step on the way to understanding the relationship between electrons and photons.
The founders of our nation believed in the power of reason, and the United States of America was the first country ever to be argued into existence. The basis of the rational argument that underlies our separation from England is made abundantly clear in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
In the story of Genesis, the Creator begins the labor of Creation by saying, Let there be light! God calls the world into being, and the world is created by God's word. On July 4th, 1776, our founders created a new nation through words, through a Declaration of Independence. They declared that we all have the freedom to choose our own government, and the freedom to pursue our own dreams. They declared that all people have a right to be free from oppression and persecution, and also to be free to engage in our own acts of creation. In the same way, on the Sabbath, we are given the freedom from labor, but also the freedom to reflect, meditate, contemplate, to pray, commune, and communicate.
The founders of the United States took inspiration from a variety of ancient sources, including our own Holy Scriptures. The story of Exodus is the story of how a diverse population of former slaves, divided among 12 tribes, became one nation, under God. If Moses telling Pharaoh to let my people go was our declaration of independence, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai was our constitution, the laws and commandments that bound us together as one. The rule of Law, of Torah, would apply to everyone, even prophets, priests, and kings, establishing the principles of equality and justice, as unalienable rights. The Haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah, concludes with one of the most memorable statements in the Bible, one that inspired the founders of this nation, and serves as the foundation of our faith: "What does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?"
The story relates how the king of Moab does not want to give the Israelites safe passage through his kingdom as they make their way to the promised land, and summons the prophet Balaam to come and put a curse upon the Israelites. This leads to a comic episode in the Book of Numbers where God causes a donkey to talk.
The story of Balaam serves as reminder of the power of words, and especially of the power of voice. Balaam has the power to bless and the curse, but both are speech acts, both blessings and curses only have power when they are spoken out loud. The same is true of the concept of prayer. The prayers printed in our prayer books are not actually prayers until we say them out loud (or in some instances, say them silently to ourselves), just as in stories of magic, the magic spell does not take effect until someone actually utters the words.
Along the same lines, our worship service officially begins with the call to worship, a vocal summoning to praise God. And when we say the watchword of our faith, the Shema, we say, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. We have to hear it, not see it, so much so that many follow the tradition of covering their eyes when saying this prayer.