Just three weeks before the reading of the Torah portion about Balak, the King of Moab (Numbers 22-24), former US President Jimmy Carter visited the area of the Etzion Bloc, ten minutes away from Bethlehem where the matriarch Rachel is buried.
It is the area where Abraham walked on his way from Hebron to Jerusalem, and where the Maccabees fought the Greeks. Among the communities in Gush Etzion is the city of Efrat, which is mentioned in the Book of Ruth. Our daily strolls are in the pathways of our forefathers.
The non-Israelite prophet Bilaam was asked by King Balak to curse the nation of Israel, as he feared "this people [who have] come out of Egypt... cover the face of the earth, and they dwell across from me..."
Refusing Balak's offers of honor, Bilaam, who wished to curse Israel, says that he can only say the words that God puts into his mouth, and adds, "Even if Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God," a comment indicating Bilaam's mindset of avariciousness.
God allows Bilaam to make the trip. Along the way, his donkey talks and he meets an angel (Read the book!), but the bottom line is that, much to Balak's shock and horror, Bilaam blesses the people of Israel, for those are the words that God puts into his mouth.
Carter paid his visit to Gush Etzion two years after the publication of his book that was extraordinarily critical of Israel.
Carter paid his visit to Gush Etzion 61 years after Gush Etzion fell to the Jordanians, 42 years after the children returned to rebuild, 30 years after the signing of the Camp David accords between Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat and two years after the publication of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a book that was extraordinarily critical of Israel. Most Israelis no longer perceive Carter as a neutral observer of the Middle East.
But most significantly, Carter's visit came one day after receiving the "Palestine International Award for Excellence and Creativity" from the Palestinian Authority, in an award ceremony at which he declared, according to the Jerusalem Post, "I have been in love with the Palestinian people for many years...I have two great-grandsons that are rapidly learning about the people here and the anguish and suffering and deprivation of human rights that you have experienced ever since 1948."
Some of the residents of the Gush Etzion communities were appalled at the idea of having a visit from Carter. Others believed that even our opponents should meet us and be given the opportunity to change their minds. I thought that if it was a done deal, they should at least take him to Kfar Etzion, the kibbutz where the returning children found scraps of Torah scrolls that had been burnt by the Arab armies in 1948. They should show him the bunker into which Arabs threw grenades in 1948, that killed the wounded who were huddled there. Most of the others, men and women, had died fighting; a handful were taken into Jordanian captivity. Only the mothers and children had been evacuated months earlier, to Jerusalem. I hoped he would be told about the history of Gush Etzion, settled in the 1920's,and then abandoned due to Arab hostility, resettled in the 1930's, then dismantled after Arab riots, resettled in the 1940's, and finally, again, in 1967.
In the end Carter came, and in addition to local officials, met with victims of Palestinian terror, like Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby, 13, was murdered in a cave near Tekoa, and Ruth Gillis, whose husband Shmuel, a hematologist from Hadassah University Medical Center, was shot dead on the highway from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion (after treating his last patient -- a Palestinian). Mayor Goldstein spoke passionately about the history and roots of Gush Etzion in general, and about how the land on which Neveh Daniel sits (and other land in Gush Etzion) was purchased by Jews in the 1930's.
"This particular settlement area is not one that I envision ever being abandoned... I think [it] will be here forever."
At the end of his visit, Carter declared to TV cameras, "I think I've done more listening than talking this afternoon...This particular settlement area is not one that I envision ever being abandoned... I think [it] will be here forever." Mayor Goldstein responded, "He said he saw things here that he never saw before. He was never here before."
Aye, there's the rub. Carter (like many others) was never here before. Carter had said in advance that he would not speak to reporters following the meeting. Yet, as one cameraman reported, in keeping with the Bilaam analogy, "As soon as Carter left the Goldstein home, he made a bee line to the TV cameras and initiated his statement that gave a blessing to the Jewish community of Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion, that it should forever be a part of the State of Israel."
When Balak hears Bilaam's blessings and asks, "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and you have blessed them!" Bilaam replies, "Must I not speak that which the Lord put in my mouth?" Balak takes Bilaam to three different locations, each time hoping for a different outcome, but it is always the same. That which God has planned, cannot be undone. Yet, Bilaam's blessings are a "cut-out," an anomaly in his character. And, according to Fox News, two days after Carter's visit to Neveh Daniel, he said that he would urge the Obama administration to remove Hamas from the terrorist list.
Among Bilaam's blessings are some of the best known in Jewish liturgy and lore, such as the treasured, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! Stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river...like cedars by water..."
What a perfect description of the quiet dwellings in the rolling hills of Gush Etzion. We must remind ourselves that the blessings which we receive come neither from prophet nor president, but from the One above.