Shabbat Balak: Truth Also Comes From Darkness

This week’s parashat hashavua finds us in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar, “in the wilderness”, is its Hebrew name) in chapter 23. We are offered a curious perspective in this parashah. There are a few places in the Torah in which a non-Israelites teaches the Israelites, but this is the only place in which an enemy of Israel offers a truth about Israel both to Israel and to its detractors.

The truth-teller is Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not all prophets are Israelites). The enemy is Balak, King of Moab. He imports Balaam to his kingdom and brings him to the front lines of his territory to curse Israel for him. Keep in mind that an curse in that day was believed to be like a well-placed land mine today, protecting your land from all incursion.

But Balaam, having prepared himself to receive the word of G-d and to exclaim it from a high hill overlooking the Israelite camp, opens his mouth and not a curse but a blessing comes out.

How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom ה has not execrated? (Numbers 23.8)

Balaam tells the truth to the powerful politician who has hired him; the King of Moab is exasperated but respects, in the final analysis, that Balaam, as a prophet, “can only say what G-d puts in [my] mouth”. (Num. 23.12)

He had everything to gain by lying, but Balaam was professionally obligated to speak the truth as he saw it. Balak is going to have to figure out another way to protect his kingdom from the enemy he perceives on his borders.

We have no indication that Balak thought twice about it, that perhaps Balaam’s words might lead to the insight that Israel was not necessarily an enemy. One the blood is up and running, it is very hard for a human being to hear that our perception of an enemy is wrong. Yet it might very well be wrong.

Our tradition warns us to always hold the other in the כף זכות – khaf zekhut, meaning to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Pirke Avot 1.6). This literally means that we are to assume that there is merit, or at least understandable motive, in all those others we encounter, in person or through the hearsay of gossip or media. It is very difficult to do that when we already know who our enemies are.  But after all, so did Balak; he knew that we were his enemy. Even after Balaam told him three times in this parashah that Israel was a blessing to him, he kept looking for the curses.

On this Shabbat, don’t assume you know the enemies that threaten your life. Rather, look for the hidden blessings that might lurk even in the place where you expect only curses. As it is noted in the teachings of the Sages, it is only within darkness, after all, that we are able to see light. And in that light, held up by or upon someone you thought was an enemy, you might see something that will bless your life.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: G-d is my GPS

In this third parashah of the Book BaMidbar, we are finally on the move; after over a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after receiving the Torah, constructing the Mishkan, organizing the priestly sacrificial system, and learning a lot of halakhah on how to maintain the appropriate atmosphere for the Mishkan in our midst, this week we read of the Israelites actually picking up and starting out on their way to the Land promised in our Covenant. BaMidbar means “in the wilderness”, and this book describes the preponderance of our ancestors’ adventures as they journey through it.

Imagine yourself in their place on the first morning that they began to move, with their families, their herds, and their flocks. If you have never explored the Sinai wilderness, here is an indication of what surrounds you: Sinai. You may have many questions about the trip (imagine the young children: “when will we get there?”), about oases, grazing land, and more, but first: in what direction are you to go? How do you stay oriented? How to know which caravan path will lead you the correct way?

You’d activate your GPS of course; no worries. The ancient Israelites did not have GPS, but they had something even more certain: the Presence of G-d, manifested as “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”.

Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped  (Numbers 9.17)

That was it: when the cloud moved, follow it. When it rested, set up the tents and make camp. The next thirty-nine years are to pass in this way. There is evidence in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) that, throughout the ages of Israelite dwelling in the Land of Israel, our ancestors somehow longed for this earlier time, which they saw as, simple, pure, and ideal. The Prophet Jeremiah expressed the feeling with the marriage metaphor commonly used for our Covenant with G-d?

I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of our engagement; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Jeremiah 2.2)

 All human beings, at some point in our lives, long for such certainty; we would all love to know exactly how to make our way through the world. It’s not wonder that our ancestors looked back at that time as an ideal – although in the weeks ahead we will read of many disruptions to the harmony that they preferred to remember.

The word bamidbar, “in the wilderness”, may be interpreted in a way that speaks directly to us, we who also wander, not perhaps geographically, but in other ways just as profound. With different vowels, the word may be understood as referring to speech – to words. And this is the wilderness in which we often find ourselves seeking clarity of direction: in a wilderness of words, of spoken, written, radioed, emailed, texted, printed….transmitted in so many ways, how are we to find our way through it all? When we are barraged by information about a candidate or a cause, for example, how do we discern which words most help us to find our way toward a decision regarding the person or the matter at hand? Which words are dead ends, and which lead toward promise?

The Israelites didn’t follow that pillar for thirty-nine years mindlessly; they encountered challenges which they attempted to learn how to answer using the guidance G-d offered through mitzvot such as those found in Mishpatim: keep your word, respect other’s wells, help your neighbor with her burden, and offer others the respect you expect for yourself.

We may not have a pillar that clearly guides us forward, but we still have access to the ethical GPS that has guided our people since those early wanderings. It can guide us just as clearly as we face our own challenges. That’s the gift offered through Torah study: over and over again, we bring our questions to Torah, and as we “turn it over and over again” we find that “….everything is in it”. Most wonderful of all, in this wandering we are not ever alone, for we’ve learned that the only way to follow that pillar is together, holding hands and stepping forth into the world.

Shabbat Behar: Between the Peak and the Valley

mah inyan shemitta eytzel har Sinai?  This is the classic Jewish form of the question you might recognize as “what does that have to do with all the tea in China?” or “what’s Hecuba to you, or you to Hecuba?”

“What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?”

This week’s parashat hashavua is named Behar, for “on the mountain”, i.e. Mt. Sinai. The first topic mentioned among the many mitzvot of this parashah is shemitta, a seven-year cycle of Shabbat rest for the agricultural land, the fruitfulness of which the ancient Israelites depend for their very lives. The shemitta command teaches that everything needs a Shabbat, not only the people and animals mentioned in the Shabbat mitzvah we repeat in our prayers every week on that day, but also the land itself.

Here we are, deep in the details of the Book called VaYikra (Leviticus), learning law after law, deriving social and personal ethics, hearing stories to illustrate the cost of transgression. In our minds, we’ve left the Sinai moment – that moment of thunder and awe and revelation – far behind. This is precisely what leads to the question: “what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” Asking the question is a way of saying that there is no apparent connection between two issues or concepts raised by one’s interlocutor.

But shemitta has a lot to do with Sinai, in the way that real life does maintain a link to the rare special moments that we experience as different – as different from everyday life, one might say, as the valley is from the peak. We live our lives in the valley of every day life, not on the mountaintop. Yet we would not know one from the other without the balance of both in our lives.

The same is true of Torah: elevating, beautiful commandments like love your neighbor as yourself, and difficult aspects such as the seeming acceptance of human conditions that we find barbaric. One of them, slavery, is legislated in this parashah. Why, we ask from our liberated place in the world, does Torah not simply abolish slavery?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation based upon the difference between chronological (Torah) and logical (philosophy) understandings of life:

There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one of these lies in their respective understandings of time. For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or, for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realized in and through time. That is the difference between what I call the logical and chronological imaginations. The logical imagination yields truth as system. The chronological imagination yields truth as story (a story is a sequence of events extended through time). Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail—because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy is incapable of understanding the human dimension of time. The inevitable result is that (in Rousseau’s famous phrase) they “force men to be free”—a contradiction in terms, and the reality of life under Soviet Communism. Revolutions based on Tanach succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change. The Torah did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; to see the full article, click here.)

The Torah’s truth unfolds like a flower, which means that our own interpretations and understandings are as significant for our age as those in the ages that came before us. We often live in the breach, rather than in the fulfillment, of a mitzvah; truth takes time and experience in balancing the peaks and valleys of real, flawed human existence. The Jewish understanding of truth grows, embracing more and more seeming paradoxes until we reach a point where we can see that there are no paradoxes; there is only multi-layered, ever shifting, always limited human perspective.

What is not clear today beckons us onward, as long as we remember that we do not see things as they are, but as we are. And so we must continue to learn, and grow, so that we can see. Everything teaches of chronological truth, and everything connects to everything else – even shemitta at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

Shabbat VaEra 5774: Don’t Look Away

We take up our story in the parashah called VaEra at chapter 7, verse 14: Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. Moshe and Aharon had come to bring him a message, and he turned away from it.
A close examination of the events so far indicate no reason why Pharaoh should be impressed: Moshe and Aharon his brother have appeared before him, and Aharon has turned his walking staff into a serpent. Pharaoh’s servants promptly imitated the special effects, and Pharaoh turned away, dismissing the message and the messengers.
How many of us have had this experience, or been the victim of it? A disturbing message, dismissed as someone else’s truth, not mine? A message refused on the face of it, because it’s so patently ridiculous? After all, you see it your way and I see it mine, and aren’t both views – or even my assertion that there is nothing to see – both equally true?
It is true, after all, that all truth is relative; what is also true, however, is that different truths create different contexts and different consequences. Truth must be understood by the company it keeps, so to speak. What are the consequences of what we see and refuse to credit?
Pharaoh turns away, “hardening his heart” and refusing to listen to a message that seemed preposterous, or at least ridiculously unpleasant. Did his unwillingness to to listen, to look, early on really lead to the catastrophe his people experienced? And if so, what must we learn from this example of turning away from the unpleasant and disturbing messages that come to us? What are we risking by pretending everything will be all right – what are the chances, anyway?
On this Shabbat, what can we learn from a parashah  called VaEra, from Exodus 6.3: I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as a Mighty G-d, but by my Name I did not reveal Myself to them….
 
Perhaps that truth is revealed in different ways at different times, and different contexts. No one’s truth is absolute; all of us need to listen, and to look.
In a recent article about the polarization of American politics, Jill Lepore offers us a fresh perspective on this idea:
“In more analytically luxuriant times, political scientists debated some of the very questions that…before the denial of climate change, certain philosophers argued that all science is interpretation….But intellectuals, as Bruno Latour once pointed out, are nearly always one critique too late: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.” Irony is cheap, not painless.”  (New Yorker, Dec 2 2013, p. 79)
Truth is a very powerful weapon. In the wrong hands, it brings plagues and tragedy. We cannot afford to look away and dismiss the potential damage of arguments that seem absurd, especially when so many people are ready to uncritically adopt them.
Not all is revealed to anyone; humility is a necessary partner to the truth we think we know well enough to assert, and live by. But truth does exist, and as the Kotzker Rebbe said, we must look for it everywhere, and help it to rise from the ground.