Friday, June 25, 2010

My Dad's Remarks on Parashat Balak, 5770

Parashat Balak

Douglas R. Blake

D'var Torah delivered at Westchester Reform Temple

Fifty years ago, June 25, 1960, I was Bar Mitzvah at Adath Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Trenton, New Jersey. It was a warm summer Saturday morning; my pants itched. My mother and sister and all of my aunts and uncles and all of my friends were there. My mother was widowed twice before I was 10 years old, and all grandparents were long deceased, so Uncle Frank stood in for a father. The Rabbi was kind but unapproachable for a boy 2 months shy of his 13th birthday; the Cantor had tutored me and provided the 45 RPM records of the haftorah which I had mastered, although not the Cantor’s nasal chazzanut. Both black robed officiants wore huge kipot which resembled crowns. The parashat was “Rosh Hodesh,” the New Moon, but I have no recollection of religious significance of anything I recited that day in a voice dangerously close to cracking. The “Kid’s Party” was that night at Marsillio’s Kitchen in Chambersberg, and featured spaghetti and meatballs and a DJ. Margie Garb, my classmate since 4th Grade, was there, although she later turned me down for a Coke date.

I’m sure that if my Bar Mitzvah portion 50 years ago had been Balak, as it is this Shabbat, I would have remembered more about what I recited. The tale of Balak, King of Moab, and Baalam, Seer or Charlatan is so odd and oddly placed as “comic relief” in the chronicles of Israel’s wanderings and wars that some Talmudic scholars believed it to be a separate book of the bible. I had to check to see that it was not actually a lost Monty Python skit. The tale features an apoplectic king, a stymied prophet, God who plays practical jokes, a talking donkey, sacrifices that go awry; even Satan makes a guest appearance.

Balak the King is worried that his hold on power is in jeopardy, so he hits on a novel strategy: “Lets Blame the Jews!” First the Big Lie: “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num 22:4) How to go about it? The Israelites are mighty. A curse! Perhaps the French soldier from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is available: “You don’t frighten us, Israelite pig-dog! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person! I blow my nose on you...” But wait, the local self-proclaimed sooth-sayer, Baalam, is a donkey ride away, and surely he will not refuse the rich commission offered. Baalam has to check it out with God first, who absolutely nixes the idea, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Num 22:12), until God agrees that Baalam can go, “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.” (Num 22:20), at which point God becomes incensed at his going. (Num 22:22) It’s tough to figure out what God wants, but Baalam is certain of two things: he can’t curse the Israelites if God won’t let him, and there’s a lot of money to be made if he can get around that minor problem.

So Baalam in the great biblical tradition saddles up his ass and sets out for the Kingdom of Moab and a potential payday, but Donkey won’t move, despite cajoling, kicking, and beating. Donkey says, “Hey Shrek! I mean, Baalam! What have I ever done to you that you treat me with such disrespect? You ride me all the time; when have I ever refused a favor?” (Num 22:28-30) And as if a talking ass isn’t strange enough, an Adversary (could it be.....oh say....SATAN!!!???), who heretofore was visible only to Donkey, blocks the way with sword in hand. Yet the intrepid travelers are permitted to pass, but that troublesome injunction not to curse those who God blesses remains in effect.

Baalam and King Balak meet at last. Although the Contract Curser is straight with the King about the unlikelihood of success, Baalam goes off to search for a good luck omen, and the two build altars (seven of them!), roast numerous bulls and rams in sacrifice, gather all the Moabite dignitaries in eager anticipation, to hear the imprecations of the mighty Baalam against the Israelites. God has written a different speech for the occasion: “How can I damn whom God has not damned? / How doom when the Lord has not doomed?” (Num 23:8) Balak is furious. “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” (Num 23:11)

Undaunted, Balak has a brilliant idea! Let’s build another seven altars in a new location, and give sacrifices! Surely it’ll work this time. The mighty King of the Moabites isn’t familiar with the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Another day, another barbecue, and now for the entertainment: The Cursing! Baalam takes the stage to proclaim “No harm is in sight for Jacob, / No woe in view for Israel. / The Lord their God is with them” (Num 23:21) We can imagine Balak’s rage, but he soon settles on a new stratagem, telling Baalam, “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them!” (Num 23:25) And Yes! We must have more altars and sacrifices in a new location. (See above definition of “insanity”).

This time Baalam gives up the search for favorable omens prior to the show, and with the aroma of formerly live mammals still in the air, proclaims, “Ma Tovu, o-ha-lecha Ya-a-kov, mish-ke-no-te-cha, Yis-ro-el! How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num 24:5) Needless to say, Balak refuses to pay for services NOT rendered, and sends the so-called prophet packing, but not before Baalam delivers one last message for the King of Moab: “A meteor comes forth from Israel; / It smashes the brow of Moab” (Num 24:17). All exit stage left.

Quite a cast of characters! (I’m particularly fond of Donkey.) Is Baalam a Prophet? He seems to lack most essential qualifications for the title, despite his intimacy with God. He’s in it for the money. He looks for omens. He speaks with God only in the sense that the dummy “speaks” to the ventriloquist; nothing comes out that the Master hasn’t put there. Plaut lists Baalam’s character assessments: “...proud, insolent, cunning, hypocritical, false, ungrateful, treacherous, cruel, blasphemous, deceiving, and sanctimonious.” (p. 1184, The Torah, A Modern Commentary) Why is such an unsavory character given the honor, indeed the obligation, to bless God’s Chosen People? I believe the lesson is that Truth is Truth, no matter who speaks it, and Truth is sacred in Torah. In fact, what is Torah to the Jews if not the embodiment of Truth?

Parashat Balak, underneath its comedic folksiness, has an intricate pattern of Truth and Lies, beginning with the Big One about Jews which has never died from the time of Pharaoh: They’re a threat, they’ll take over, they’re like animals who’ll strip the land bare. It’s unclear whether Baalam believes the anti-Israelite message he’s implored to deliver by the Moabites, but he’s certainly willing to say it for money. Even events that can’t be true (a donkey that talks!) and an encounter with Satan, the King of Liars, doesn’t dissuade him. The Truth about the Israelites, that they are blessed, protected, and chosen for God’s purposes remains true even if a charlatan, a hypocrite, a buffoon such as Baalam speaks it. God will have the Truth told, and all will know it.

It seems that truth is an increasingly rare commodity. Kings of Media hire the descendants of Baalam (Limbaugh, Beck) to curse their enemies for money. They build altars called AM Talk Radio, Cable Network News, and the Blogosphere. “Fair and Balanced,” they lie: the President is a Kenyan, the Death Panels are arriving by black helicopters, and evolution is for monkeys. And yet, Jews believe that lies must be countered, that God knows the Truth and Torah will help us find it.

I’d like to tell you that my Bar Mitzvah was the start of serious religious study, but it didn’t happen that way. In fact, my mother remarried the following year; we moved to Philadelphia; I was enrolled in Confirmation class at a Reform temple. With the smug certainty of the truly ignorant, I knew that this English-speaking-yarmulka-less pseudo-Judaism-lite was illegitimate, and I commenced my teenage rebellion by refusing to attend. By medical school, my alienation was almost complete. I was in anatomy lab on Yom Kippur.

And then, a Bar Mitzvah away from my own (13 years later), in September 1973, my son was born. I was strangely compelled to attend High Holiday services that season. A Bar Mitzvah later, in October 1986, my son Jonathan was called to the Torah. He looks about the same. Uncle Frank was there. Some who attended suggested that he might become a Rabbi. Margie Garb was there, as she is tonight, at my second Bar Mitzvah.

I’ve tried to tie up my feelings about the changes 50 years brings. Adath Israel of Trenton is now in Lawrenceville. It bills itself as “Egalitarian Conservative” and for 25 years has been led by a reconstructionist Rabbi. I’m glad God waited for me to come back to worship and study, but it’s easier to predict when you’re All Knowing. As for me, I’m still in tune with Paul Simon who opined, in “The Boxer,”

Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin’ even me

I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual

No it isn’t strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same....

One final word of thanks to Rabbi Jacobs and the Congregation of Westchester Reform Temple. You have opened the doors of your home, your sanctuary, and your hearts to me and my family. Ma Tovu o-halecha, Ya-a-kov, mish-ke-no-te-cha, Yis-ra-el!

May God’s richest blessings always be upon this house and its families.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Stay tuned for special guest blogging!

Shalom, faithful readers!

Stay tuned later this week, and the next two weeks, for guest bloggers from our WRT membership and, later this week, from my Dad!

My father will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah at Westchester Reform Temple on Friday night by chanting from Parashat Balak and offering the D'var Torah at services which begin at 6:15 PM.

I'll post his remarks on Friday.

The next two weeks, I'll be out of the office and have invited a couple of guest bloggers to help me keep the site updated with their thoughts. I'm hoping to feature guest blogging periodically in the months to come, so like you, I'm eager to read their (and your) comments.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Study Texts for Parashat Chukkat, Num. 19ff.

Dear Friends,

I hope you like the new look of our blog. Your feedback is most welcome.

I will be offering remarks from the bimah this Friday night, June 18, on Parashat Chukkat, which begins with one of the strangest passages in all of Torah, the laws describing the ritual of the Red Heifer. I direct your attention to the Parasha itself which you can find in any chumash (Torah Commentary) or online by following the links to the right ---> of this post.

Once you've read Numbers Chapter 19 in its entirety, I want you to consider the following question: To what extent, if any, does Judaism -- or does Religion in general -- require its faithful practitioners to "check their rational faculties at the door?" Are there any religious experiences or practices for which Reason is not required?

To assist you in your study, I am now providing the study texts that we will examine during Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night. I look forward to seeing you there, and at Torah Study on Saturday morning.

Happy studying!

Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 759

“This is the statute of the Torah.” R. Isaac opened [his interpretation] with the text, “All this I have tried (to fathom) by wisdom; I said, I will get wisdom; but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23). Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reached this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned, “I said I will get wisdom, but it was far from me” (As cited in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), p. 233).

Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 19:8

A certain idolator once challenged Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai: “The rituals that you perform with the Red Heifer resemble witchcraft! You bring a cow, burn it up, grind it, and extract its ashes. Then, when one of you is defiled by a corpse, you sprinkle two or three drops on him and say to him, ‘You are purified!’”

He responded to him, “Haven’t you ever been possessed by a demon spirit?”

To which he replied, “No.”

He said, “Have you ever seen a person possessed by a demon spirit?”

To which he replied, “Yes.”

“And what do you do for him?” he asked. “We bring herbs and turn them into smoke beneath him, and throw water on him, upon which it [the demon spirit] vanishes,” he said.

He retorted, “Can your ears hear what is coming out of your mouth?! The demon spirit is the same as the spirit of ritual defilement!… We sprinkle purifying water on him, and it vanishes.”

Afterwards, Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples said to him, “Rabbeinu, you pushed him aside with a reed, but what can you say to us?”

He told them, “By your very lives, it is not that the dead can defile nor that the water can purify. Rather, the Holy One of Blessing has said: ‘I have enacted a statute; I have decreed a decree. You are not authorized to transgress my statute, as it is written, “This is the statute of the Torah.”’”

(translation: J. Blake)

Midrash Sifra, Kedoshim

“It is more praiseworthy to do something solely because God commands it than because our own logic or sense of morality leads us to the same conclusion” (As cited in Etz Hayim, p. 880).

Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997)

“Let us not be among those who seek for rational explanation for those things, to which the laws of reason do not apply. May we be like the disciples of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who accept the yoke of the statutes (hukkim), just as they do the yoke of the other commandments of the Torah” (Studies in Bamidbar, p. 235).

From the Pittsburgh Platform (Kaufmann Kohler, et al., 1885)

3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.

4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

Joseph Bekhor Shor (Late 12th C., Orléans, Northern France), ad loc.

The rites pertaining to the Red Heifer were designed to discourage association with the dead, prompted by the bereaved’s love for the departed, and excessive grief…. Also on account of human respect, that people should not come to using human skin for coverings and human bones for articles of use just as we use the skin of animals; it is disrespectful of humanity…. The text likewise went to the strictest lengths in its requirements, demanding the ashes of a red heifer which are an expensive item (as cited in Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 234).

W. Gunther Plaut (b. 1912)

The need to be ritually purified after touching a corpse reflects an ancient and universal fear of the dead, whose spirits were believed capable of injuring the community. While the ritual of the red cow is doubtlessly based on pre-biblical practices--an old Canaanite epic tells of the death of the underworld god of fertility, who went to the underworld and there copulated with a heifer--the Torah here appears to reinterpret old practices in accordance with its own religious views. At the core of these stands the idea that Israel is a holy people and that holiness demands a state of physical and spiritual purity” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition), p. 1035).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

KORACH 5770: Faith and Fantasy

Dear Friends:

I have revisited and revised a column that I authored a few years ago in light of this week’s portion, Korach. Enjoy!


There’s a book out there called Harry Potter and Torah. The author, Bruce “Dov” Krulwich, was inspired by his children’s enthusiasm for the Harry Potter books to write a guidebook connecting themes from the popular seven-book series (and, thus far, five movies and counting) to the five books of Moses.

Each chapter of Harry Potter and Torah begins with a premise drawn from the Harry Potter books, and then explores the way in which this premise appears in Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and other sacred Jewish texts. The first chapter discusses Magic Words. Young wizards learn to cast spells, harnessing the power of speech in the service of magic. The author compares the opening of Genesis in which God brings forth Creation through divine speech: the words “Let there be light,” a magical spell itself. This leads to a discussion of the power of saying blessings in Jewish tradition, and an exploration of the word “Abracadabra,” which derives from the Hebrew abra k’davra, “I will speak so as to create.”

The Harry Potter books are full of magical beasts. Jewish sacred literature is also full of magical beasts! Balaam rode a talking ass; midrash swarms with fantastic creatures. Noah sent a message from his ark by raven and dove; Harry uses Hedwig the messenger owl. Each comparison provides Krulwich with a springboard to discuss the Jewish lessons embedded in magical themes. All in all, he makes a compelling argument: if you like Harry Potter, you’re going to love Torah! Far from dusty, dull, holy books, Jewish sacred texts are fun, fantastic, relevant, and, yes, magical.

The Torah portion Korach that we read this week contains a spectacular scene that would play well in any Harry Potter installment. In response to the rebellion instigated by Korach and his followers, “the earth beneath them opened its mouth and swallowed them, their houses, and all the people associated with Korach with their property. They and all they possessed went down alive into She’ol, and they vanished from the assembly” (Num. 16:32-33). The text emphasizes the miraculous nature of the offenders’ demise. Just before the catastrophe, God predicts that the event will be, in Hebrew, a b’riah, meaning a totally new creation, something never before seen (Num. 16:30). Further, in the Book of Deuteronomy, referring to the doom of Korach’s band, the Israelites are reminded, “Your own eyes saw all the wondrous deeds that the Eternal performed” (Deut. 11:2-7). The recollection of wondrous deeds serves as a preamble to this line: “Therefore, keep all the mitzvot that I enjoin upon you today…” (Deut. 11:8). Supernatural themes are coupled with moral instruction.

Many reasons have been proposed for the runaway popularity of J. K. Rowling’s series, making her the most commercially successful novelist of all time (by some accounts richer than Queen Elizabeth II). Most come down to this: the engaging way in which the Harry Potter books wed supernatural themes to timeless themes of adolescence: discovering oneself and one’s destiny; choosing right instead of wrong; making difficult decisions and sacrifices; trading one’s childhood innocence in order to understand and confront life’s painful realities – loss, death, heartbreak, betrayal. Above all, the Harry Potter books are about moral dilemmas and the spiritual discipline, study, practice, and life experience required to confront these dilemmas with integrity – all cloaked in the garment of magic. No wonder hundreds of millions of readers hang on every word and moviegoers have given the franchise billions.

As a congregational rabbi who enjoys the privilege of studying with hundreds of children and adolescents, I appreciate the way in which the Harry Potter books, and these themes, resonate. Given that the Torah similarly weds tales of the supernatural to timeless life lessons (particularly lessons relevant to growing up in a world that often shocks, confuses, and disappoints us), I wish that more students knew half as much about the basic stories of Jewish sacred literature as they do about the exploits of Harry, Hermione, Voldemort, and the rest. I have been wondering why Harry Potter enjoys such a wide readership while the most exciting stories of the Torah frequently meet with blank stares.

One reason may be the way in which Torah has been taught, historically and today.

Across the spectrum of Jewish practice and belief—from Orthodoxy to Reform—Torah is often presented in the classroom as a “holy text,” indeed the “word of God,” instead of, simply, brilliant storytelling. No one reads Harry Potter feeling pressured to believe in Dementors, Hippogriffs, or Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Our youth, however, often encounter Torah stories in the context of a religious school class or synagogue sermon in which the book is presented as a book fundamentally unlike other literature, a story that we not only should appreciate and enjoy but believe. Students grow up thinking that to call the Torah “literature” is to besmirch it, as if only “non-fiction” writing has lasting value. If they can’t “believe” the stories literally, why bother reading them at all? they conclude. Coming across a fantastic, hair-raising passage like the demise of Korach’s band, one is likely to feel confounded, and say, “Give me a break!” That's too bad, because the point of the story was never to make us believe in miracles but rather to expose the folly of a rebel demagogue.

Yet some of the greatest works of moral instruction, timeless stories illuminating the human condition, are not “holy books.” Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet speak in the language of ghosts, spells, and witches, but their universal, eternal themes and moral dilemmas resonate in the heart of even the most dyed-in-the wool rationalist.

If you do believe that the Torah represents the word of God, then I do not wish to dissuade you. Far from it! However, if you have never felt comfortable reading Torah because it has only been presented to you as a matter of belief instead of literature, then I would invite you to put away your assumptions and simply begin to read – these, the timeless stories of the Jewish people.

If I could cast one spell, if a wizard could grant me one wish, it would be this: that we would read Torah with open and critical eyes, approaching it as one of the world’s most inspired and inspiring literary contributions. May our encounter with Torah be a fresh miracle every day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Guest Blogger Leah Citrin on Parashat Shelach-Lecha

Dear Friends,

I have been on a mini-vacation for most of this week and invited a guest blogger, matriculating Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Leah Citrin (Expected ordination: HUC-Cincinnati, 2015), WRT member and Torah Study "regular," to fill in while I was away.

I am pleased to present her reflections on Parashat Shelach-Lecha for your contemplation and comments in anticipation of Saturday's Torah Study session at the usual time and place! (I'll be in town by then and eager to share Shabbat morning with you.)

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake



Leah Citrin

In this week’s Parasha, Shelach-Lecha, we find the infamous incident with the scouts who are sent ahead into the Promised Land to report back to the rest of the Israelites. They are instructed to evaluate the people (strength and number), the towns (fortification), the land (soil and forestry), and the country itself.

In less than four weeks, I too will have the opportunity to act as a scout to the Promised Land. Although it is not the explicit purpose of my journey, I know that I will undoubtedly be asked to report about the situation in Israel to those back home in the U.S. Now more than ever the pressure will be on to accurately describe what I see. I may not be asked the same questions as the scouts in Shelach-Lecha, but the parallel of concepts is undeniable. And when the time comes, I will have the opportunity to respond. I will have the opportunity to shape others’ opinions, reactions, and approaches to environments they did not experience themselves. And I will have a choice to make in my representation of the situation.

This week, I invite you also to consider: have you had the opportunity to act as a scout? What factors had an effect on your evaluation of the situation?

After looking at what lies ahead, the scouts return with a submissive approach: the people are numerous and strong and the towns are fortified. In fact, the scouts assert that it would not be possible to overtake the inhabitants. As a result, the Israelites vocalize a desire to return to Egypt, doubting the fulfillment of God’s promise to them.

God responds to this outpour of doubt in anger and anguish, spurred by an unbearable frustration. Moses, who just last week was equally frustrated with the Israelites, comes to their defense. However, Moses’s argument is based not on the deserving nature of the Israelites but on an appeal to the ego and reputation of God. Furthermore, Moses emphasizes the characteristics of the God he knows, one who is, “slow to anger, and abundant in kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment” (Num. 14:18).

Here, I see Moses trying to pick out the positives in a rather questionable situation. Moses is offering an alternative explanation for why God should not strike the Israelites with pestilence and disown them (Num. 14:12), in case he is overstepping his boundary by appealing to the ego and reputation of God. I think this is something we have all seen before.

We have all felt the frustration of a relationship. It is not difficult to doubt someone else’s intentions or feel that our own best efforts go unnoticed. It can be one of the worst feelings in the world. In Shelach-Lecha, God resolves that internal frustration by preserving the Divine "ego" and reputation (so to speak) while still seeking to maintain the relationships that triggered frustration (i.e. with the Israelites). God vows to let the Israelites into the Promised Land, but only after 40 years of wandering in the desert.

So, how do we deal with our frustration and dismay? How do we approach relationships that have become frustrating?

Ed. note: Your comments are invited below!