What do Bilaam, Bar Kamtza and Sarah Huckabee Sanders have in common? All three are involved in either depriving or being deprived of hospitality, be it in someone’s home, reception or restaurant. In all three cases there is a lack of civility.
In the case of Bilaam, the Or Hachayim comments that Bilaam is desirous of cursing the Israelite population at the behest of the king of Moab, Balak, but has to be cajoled and bribed in order to do so. Bilaam rejects the overtures of low ranked officers sent by the king to persuade him to come to Balak and curse the people of Israel, delaying an answer to them pending permission given him by G-d to be able to do so. When he is denied that permission, he wakes up early in the morning and sends away the king’s officers without giving them any food. He is hoping that Balak sends him important dignitaries to beseech him to agree to curse the Hebrew population encamped on the borders of Moab.
Bar Kamtza, as many of us know, is mistakenly invited to a party hosted by a sworn enemy of his. Having been expelled by the party in the presence of rabbis and other dignitaries, he avenges his humiliation at the hands of his host by relating to the Roman authorities in Judea that the Jews are rebelling against them. Through duplicity and conspiratorial behavior, he is able to convince the Roman procurator that indeed the Jews are disloyal, prompting military action against the latter, and the eventual destruction of the Second Temple.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders is asked to leave a restaurant because she works for the President of the United State whose views and statements are repugnant in the eyes of many. Unlike Bilaam and Bar Kamtza, she reacts civilly to her embarrassment at the hands of the owner of that Virginia enterprise.
At present, there is a growing trend of uncivil behavior that is marking social interaction south of our border. Racism, anti-Semitism derision and denigration are on the rise, fomented by an attitude of American leadership beginning with the President of the United States that demonstrates a lack of respect for those whose views are not in sync with those in the White House.
Derech Eretz, or proper behavior , is not only a Jewish concept. It is universal. Unfortunately, denigration eventually leads to the dehumanization of the other, whose views differ from the individual who feels the need to humiliate those with whom he does not agree. In the case of Bar Kamtza, the breakdown of relations among Jews leads to the destruction of the Second Temple.
On Sunday, we mark the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, even though the actual date is on Shabbat. This fast, which begins the period of the Three Weeks culminating with Tisha B’Av, is connected to the Second Temple’s destruction. When we engage in the recitation of Selichot on Sunday morning, we not only recount the events connected to this fast day and our hope for atonement, but we must keep in the back of our minds the need for civil discourse and behavior in how we relate to those around us.