parashat hashavua Balak: Jewish camping

This week’s parashah is once again curiously, albeit appropriately, named, this time for a king who is hostile to the Jewish people and suspicious of them; or so it seems. King Balak of Moab is concerned about the Israelites approaching his kingdom and camping nearby. His response is to act to defend his borders, not by raising an army or passing a budget to buy the latest war weapons, but by hiring a prophet (a vocation not exclusively Israelite, apparently) to curse the Israelites. A potent weapon if he can pull it off….

The prophet, Balaam, receives the King’s messengers and agrees to go with them to the King, warning that his ability to help would not depend upon reward: “even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God.” (Numbers 22.18)

 Sure enough, Balaam arrives at the Israelite campsite, after some adventures that include a wonderful, funny cameo with a talking ass, and is unable to do King Balak’s bidding, which is to curse the Israelites. Instead, the words that come out of his mouth have become a sort of blessing, traditionally uttered when a Jew enters a shul:

Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishk’notekha Yisrael – “how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Numbers 24.5).

What did Balaam see, that he praised Israel’s tents? Rashi suggests that “he saw that they pitch their tents so the doorways should not be opposite each other (respecting each other’s privacy).” In other words, they pitched their tents with consideration for their neighbors. Each had concern for something other than just her own tent, his own view, or their own situation.

How is your tent pitched? What are you saying about your neighbors by the way you have chosen to create or maintain your dwelling-place? Do you live within a homeowners’ association, or simply live surrounded by those with whom you do, inevitably, share physical space? How do you recognize it, or turn away from it? Is your tent one that would draw Balaam’s praise?

In his book Bowling Alone the sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that one of our biggest social challenges is in the way we relate to our neighbors. We are more likely to sue than to settle an issue over the back fence. Our lack of engagement with our neighbors results inevitably in more loneliness, more alienation, and less human kindness.

May your tent be blessed by not being pitched alone.

parashat hashavua Hukat: listening for the bat kol

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week read all over the Jewish world, is called Hukat – “law”. There are two words often used for “law” in the Torah: hukah, or hok, and mishpat. You will often see them mentioned together, and they are usually translated with words that seem like synonyms to us: “laws and statutes”, for example. 

     But Jewish tradition teaches that there are no synonyms in Torah, no wasted words and no redundancy: when confronted with hok and mishpat, therefore, we are to look below the surface of the text, and try to hear deeper resonances of Torah that can speak to us in many relevant ways, once we begin to look. Our ancestors described the more subtle nuances of G-d’s word with the term bat kol, a “still small voice” that brings insight, once we were quieted from our wordy struggles with meaning, so that we can calm down, and listen to it.

     Torah interpretation of these two terms is significantly informed by this week’s parashah. The text begins with “G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying This is the hok of the Torah…” (Numbers 19.1-2) The hok, called in English a “statute”, is, in this case, the commandment of the ritual of the Red Heifer – a ritual so confoundingly illogical in its particulars that even the wise King Solomon, it is said, did not understand it.

     A hok, then, is a mitzvah, a command, that is not necessarily understood. One might suggest that its presence in the Torah is to teach that one to obey it as one obeys all G-d’s commands, because it is a command, not because it is understood. Maimonides explained the difference between hok and mishpat rationally: a mishpat is a law we could figure out on our own – a law that is logical in terms of social or personal life. But a hok is a law that we could not intuit on our own, i.e. it is a command that requires revelation by G-d.

     Torah laws that don’t make sense can be upsetting. We can disagree endlessly over them. Or they can invite us to an exercise of humility: painful though it might be, it is sometimes necessary for we human beings to be reminded that we are not, ourselves, capable of understanding everything about our lives. It is even possible, once in a while, that someone else is right, even when we are sure that we ourselves are correct. It is only through this struggle that new insights into Torah are revealed…and one of those insights is that some revelations will always be beyond us.

     Religious practice will always contain an element of mystery, of that response which the hok summons: I don’t get it. That is the enduring contribution of religion in our age; it gives us a framework to help us consider mystery, and to confront the meaning of faith as the place where knowledge cannot go. I am not sure; I cannot explain why I feel this; I just know. These are not statements of science, nor of certainty – yet there is no reason to feel anxious about that. There is mystery at the heart of life, and we will never solve it. It can make us anxious, though; it can cause us to argue and even to become angry.

     It is only when we stand in the presence of mystery, unafraid and ready to listen, that we begin to hear the bat kol, that sense of some voice outside of us that brings us insight we cannot achieve alone. It might be in the words of a friend, or a child, or a parent, or a stranger – or even an adversary in the struggle for meaning. G-d is heard every day, in the still small voice that calls to us all the time….but which we can only hear when we quiet our fears, our anger and our ego. And the way in which we deal with our uncertainty, and the way we treat each other in our anxiety, will determine whether the conflict produces more light, or only more heat.

     Hillel and Shammai managed to bring light into the world. They represented two opposing Torah interpretation groups in ancient Israel. It is said about them that they disagreed about every law in the Torah, yet they conducted themselves toward each other as one indivisible community – demonstrated by the fact that children from each side married each other. In one memorable debate between the two schools, they argued seemingly incompatibly opposite positions. 

     But at the moment when each side stopped arguing and listened to each other’s words, both sides heard it: a bat kol issued forth declaring these and these are the words of the Living G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvim 13b) 

     “Living” – in mystery, in conflict, in disagreement and in contradiction, even as are we – only thus do we hear the Living G-d, and so gain insight, knowledge, and understanding as we are able. 

parashat hashavua Korakh: Makhloket

Our concept for the week is makhloket, which means “argument” or “disagreement” but comes from a root that can also mean “slippery”. It is a Hebrew word with impressive pedigree. In the Talmud, our Sages explain that there are two kinds of makhloket, that which is “for the sake of heaven” and that which is “not for the sake of heaven.”

Any makhloket which is for the sake of heaven will endure; that which is not for the sake of heaven will not endure.

What is a makhloket which is for the sake of heaven? that of Hillel and Shammai.

What is a makhloket which is not for the sake of heaven? that of Korakh.   (Avot 5.17)

So who is Korakh and why is our parashat hashavua, our Torah reading of the week, named after him? We see that by the time the Rabbis of the Talmud want to illuminate a form of disagreement, they use Korakh as a prime example.

Korakh leads a rebellion against Moshe. His protest against Moshe’s leadership, as the Torah records it, is:

“You take too much upon you. Look: all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and G-d is among them. Why then do you lift yourselves above the assembly of G-d?”(Numbers 16.3).

This sounds reasonable enough. G-d calls upon all the Israelites to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” in Exodus; Korakh is protesting, it seems, against too much totalitarian control of the people. Korakh speaks high-sounding words here – why should our tradition call his argument a makhloket without merit?

The answer is because Korakh’s argument was disingenuous. He didn’t really want to promote democracy. As a member of the Levite tribe himself, close kin to the families chosen to be priests, Korakh wanted a piece of that action for himself. He was using an argument that sounded far more noble than his actual intentions were. This manipulation caused other, non-Levite Israelites, to be encouraged that they too might rise to leadership; 250 of them joined Korakh.

The Torah records that the rebellion ended when the earth itself opened her mouth and swallowed up Korakh and all his fellow protesters. This may seem like a harsh punishment, so I encourage you to think of it differently. Korakh’s argument had no grounding.

Makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement for the sake of a higher cause, can be difficult but is always praiseworthy. Anything less is hurtful, dismissive of the real stakes, and devoid of any positive outcome. When you are next involved in a makhloket, ask yourself: is it truly for a worthwhile cause, or are you actually veiling lesser feelings and needs? If so, is there a way you can take a step back and consider your grounding, and what the lack of it might cost you – and others?

parashat hashavua: Shelakh-L’kha: They Might Be Giants

This week’s parashah teaches about the challenge of going forth into uncharted territory. This, of course, is what we face all the time; but many of us fear it, avoid it, and do a bad job of coping with it despite the experience we all have of change in our lives. 

High school seniors look at college freshman as giants; a new apprentice or trainee sees the seasoned workers around her in the same way. The new toy may be attractive, but the new reality creates anxiety and fear. So it was for our ancestors when they reached the edge of the Promised Land, as the Torah records this week in parashat Shelakh. 

Yes; this week. If only we had made the crossing here, the book of Numbers would end now. But we did not make the crossing. We peered in from a distance,and as a first step, we sent scouts to do reconnaissance. They reported:

And they showed them the fruit of the land. “We came unto the land to which you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey, but the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; …. ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.  And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'”(Numbers 13.26-33, excerpted)

We seemed like grasshoppers to ourselves next to those giants; we can’t possibly go in there! Note that the Torah calls it “an evil report” – why? certainly the scouts are only being cautious, and pointing out the possible difficulties on the way. Isn’t it best to be conservative when dealing with the unknown?

The answer given by Torah commentators and interpreters is that it depends on the unknown; and in the final analysis, it depends on your faith. G-d had already assured the people of Israel that they would be able to enter the land, but when the scouts asserted that they could not, the Israelites, moved by their fear of the unknown, chose the fearful option, rather than the faithful one. They were not ready to take a leap of faith and trust G-d; they were not ready to be free people. They still had a slave mentality.

It’s still true that we are sometimes required to step into uncharted territory in our personal lives and in the life of our community. There are really only two choices about how to react to the unknown future into which we must move: either with fear, or with faith. In the case of this parashah, fear bought our ancestors thirty-eight more years of wandering, after which they came to the exact same place and were confronted with the exact same reality. The only thing that had changed in the meantime was them, and their ability, finally, to make that leap of faith.

They might be giants; but so will we be when we act with faith – with love, a willingness to learn, and most of all, to see ourselves as more than grasshoppers.