Blessings and Relationships – Balak 5773

We experience holiness and blessing when we truly see the other with an open heart. This is something that the Prophet Balaam is unable to do in this morning’s Torah portion.

We can understand Balaam through Martin Buber’s notion of relationships. For Buber, most of our relationships are what he calls “I-It.” We treat others as objects from whom we can get something. These are transactional encounters. What can this person do for me?

Think about the numerous interactions we have every day – at home, at school, at work. Most are transactional. This person is going to ring up my purchase, or bring me my food, fold my laundry, turn in a report, and so on.

The other type of relationship, the far more significant one, Buber calls “I-Thou.” This occurs when we encounter the other in its entirety. My whole being comes face to face with another’s whole being – and that encounter demands a response. Our relationships are only meaningful to the extent that we can truly encounter the other.

Ultimately, according to Buber, we enter into a relationship with God when we relate to the other as Thou.

Balaam treats everyone whom he encounters as an It. All of his relationships are transactional. He never really responds to Balak and his emissaries. They want to hire him to curse the Israelites, and he shrewdly leads them on: “I can’t do anything except what God tells me… but stay until tomorrow, maybe I’ll be able to come with you after all.” We get the impression that Balaam is stringing them along just to convince them to raise his pay.

Balaam treats his donkey as an It as well. The poor animal is only a mode of transportation to him. That is why Balaam does not hesitate to beat her when she stops moving. One would think that an animal that had been a faithful steed and companion all these years would deserve a bit of compassion – but Balaam considers her only for what she can do for him. He never truly sees her.

Because Balaam is treating everyone as an It, he cannot perceive the angel, who is a stand-in for God. His inability to authentically relate to the Other renders him incapable of sensing God’s Presence.

After two rounds of God placing words of blessing into Balaam’s mouth, he has at least recognized the pattern. So what does he do? Balaam looks down on the Israelites, and sees them encamped tribe by tribe. He sees something that impresses him, for this leads him to offer his own words of blessing:

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mish-k’notekha Yisrael.

“How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”

What is so “lovely” about the Israelites? That they truly relate to one another. They encounter their children, their parents, their spouses, their friends and neighbors as Thou, to use Buber’s terminology. It is this quality that makes them beloved of God and deserving of blessing.

Listen closely to how Balaam expresses the people’s loveliness. How lovely are your ohalim, “your tents,” and your mish-k’not, literally “your tabernacles,” or sanctuaries.

For a nomadic people in the wilderness, “your tents and your tabernacles” is the equivalent of saying “your homes and your synagogues.”

Balaam recognizes in our ancestors a quality that he himself lacks – that they treat one another as human beings with a divine spark. Not as an It from whom I can derive some advantage, but rather as a Thou who reflects the image of God. That is why God’s Presence resides with the people.

This quality has characterized Jewish life every since. The Torah’s commandments and our people’s traditions orient us towards living in meaningful relationships with each other – both in the home, and in community. This is how we experience holiness.

Holiness is encountered in relationships – but only when those relationships are unencumbered by greed and selfishness.

In his new book Relational Judaism, Dr. Ron Wolfson identifies the different levels of relationships that Jews encounter:

Between you and yourself; you and your family, your friends; between you and Jewish living and learning; between you and your community; Jewish Peoplehood; the State of Israel; and the whole world; and finally, between you and God.

Each of these levels of relationship can be holy, but only if we make the effort to encounter the other before us. If we want to experience holiness in our fast-paced, high tech world, we have to make an effort to encounter one another with our hearts. Our Jewish traditions in both home and community, if we would embrace them, are key.

Here are just a few examples. On Friday night, as part of the table rituals, it is customary for parents to bless their children. Granted, sometimes it can be a challenge to get them to sit still, but that moment of intimacy between parent and child, mediated through ancient words from the Torah, creates an opportunity for an I-Thou encounter.

Now shift to synagogue. At the end of Shabbat morning services, before we start eating, we recite kiddush together. Not individually, but together. Our custom is that, before reciting the final blessing over the wine, the leader chants savri, and everyone responds: l’chayim. “To life!” It is often a light-hearted moment, but think about what is taking place. We have come together from all over the place at the end of a busy week, spent time praying together, and are about to share a meal. But we don’t rush. We pause to declare the holiness of Shabbat. Not privately, but all together. And we shout out “to life!” It could be an intensely powerful moment, a joyous and holy moment, if we open our hearts.

And finally, when someone is in mourning for a loved one, the announcement goes out about shiva minyanim, services to be held in that person’s home. The community comes to them. And that includes for people we do not personally know. In a time of loss, we do not leave a person to be alone. We make sure that the mourner has a minyan, a community, to give the mourner an opportunity to recite the mourner’s kaddish – a prayer that is all about holiness.

When Balaam looked down on the Israelites, this must have been what he saw. Parents and children, friends, neighbors, and strangers, all treating one another as human beings in the image of God. People celebrating time together with joy and life. People comforting one another during periods of loss. When Balaam saw an entire nation living this way, he recognized something that had been missing in his own life. He recognized that God was with this people, and that they were truly blessed.

The Song of the Well – Chukat 5773

This morning, we read the famous story of Moses hitting the rock. But there is another brief passage in this morning’s Torah portion that also deals with water bubbling up from the rocky desert ground.

Towards the end of the parshah, the Israelites set out again on their journey, marching ever closer to the Promised Land. From Kadesh to Mount Hor, where Aaron the High Priest dies. From Mount Hor, an unsuccessful attempt to enter Canaan form the South. They turn right and head off to the East. Ovot, Iye Abarim, Wadi Zered, the River Arnon. They pass by the borders of Edom, and Moab. They are now East of the Dead Sea, in what is the modern day country of Jordan. Then, to a place called Be’er, where God suddenly instructs Moses to gather the people together.

“Assemble the people that I may give them water,”*1* God declares. Something is a little strange. Twice already in this parshah alone, the Israelites have complained about not having water to drink. The first time led to the disaster with the staff and the rock, and Moses and Aaron getting banned from the land of Israel. The second time resulted in a plague of fiery serpents.

Now, all of a sudden, God is calling the people together for a water break without any whining. Why the sudden change?

According to the Spanish commentator Abarbanel, God said “I don’t want to hear their complaints.” God is tired of the whining, and has just given in.

Perhaps.  In any event, the assembled Israelites suddenly burst into song. Az yashir yisrael et-hashirah hazot. “Then Israel sang this song.” I’m sorry, I don’t know the melody.

Spring up, O well – sing to it –

The well which the chieftains dug

which the nobles of the people started

with maces, with their own staffs.*2*

Then the Torah continues on with its story, describing the next stops in the Israelites’ journey.

This short episode is rather perplexing. According to the song, it does not seem to take a lot of effort to find these wells. The chieftains are digging them with a staff. One gets the impression that all they have to do is scratch the surface of the gravel a little bit, and water will come gushing forth.

But we know that water in the desert is no trifling thing. It is life and death. The book of Genesis contains stories of fighting over the rights to wells. Discovering a new well is momentous enough that the Torah goes out of its way to mention it. The discovery of a well is often considered to be miraculous. We know wells are important to the the Israelites, because they start complaining whenever they run out of water.

An Aramaic translation and commentary of the Torah expands on the obscure references in the song and fills in the gaps:

Then Israel sang this song of praise, when they settled and the well stayed, and when the when they moved on [so did the well] by the merit of Miriam: “Rise up, O well, rise up, O well!” They would sing and it would rise. This is the well of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Great of the ancient past dug it; the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, scribes of Israel, drew it out with their staffs.*3*

The song is not just a one time performance. For forty years, whenever Israel travels, the well travels with them. Some people are mentioned. It is on account of the merit of the Prophetess Miriam that the miraculous well stayed with them throughout their journeys. That is why, as soon as she dies in this morning’s parshah, the people are immediately without water.

But it is not only Miriam’s well. The well’s history extends back to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Then Moses and Aaron are brought in to the story. They, with their staves, are able to draw water out of the ground.

But this is not just about water. Two terms in this song are metaphors that further expand the meaning.

First is the well itself. Water is understood to be a metaphor for Torah.

The second term is m’chokek. The original meaning is staff, or scepter. But already in the Bible, m’chokek takes on an sense . M’chokek also means ruler, or lawgiver. In ancient artistic depictions, rulers often hold a staff in their hands. Think of the symbolism of Moses’ staff.

And so, applying these metaphors to the song of the well, we have the following message: the chieftain who uses his staff to bring water out of the ground to quench the people’s thirst is likened to the teacher who brings out the Torah to quench the people’s spiritual thirst.

It is not only Moses, Aaron, and Miriam who draw out the water of the Patriarchs for the people. It is true of every teacher of Torah. Whoever interprets the ancient teachings of our tradition and shares that knowledge with the world is like that chieftain who can use the staff to find water in the desert.

While we, thankfully, can get water simply by turning on the tap, we do find ourselves in a different kind of wilderness. We live in a world in which it is very easy to lose our direction. We live far apart from each other. Traditional communities have broken down. We spend less time in face to face conversations and more time in front of screens. And we consume, consume, consume. Despite all of that consumption, I fear that many of us today are thirsty, whether we know it or not.

As Jews, it is the living waters of Torah that sustains us, that enables us to draw on the ancient wisdom of our tradition – a tradition that extends all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, that nourished Miriam, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites in the wilderness, and that continues to nourish us to this day. Maybe, like the Israelites, we should sing about it more.

 

*1*Numbers 21:16

*2*Numbers 21:17-18

*3*Targum Pseudo-Yonatan

Holy Fighting, Not Holy War – Korach 5772

If we look at the long span of human history and think of all of the wars that have been waged in God’s name, with all of the suffering and destruction that has been caused, I think we can probably all agree that waging holy war is probably not a recipe for a life of holiness.
But there is a difference between holy war and holy fighting.  Holy war is when one person, or one side, claims to speak on God’s behalf, and tries to impose its interpretation of God’s will on an opponent by force.
Holy fighting is something entirely different.  As thinking and reasoning human beings, we disagree by our very nature.  It is inevitable that we will argue with each other, and even fight.  But there is a way to fight that is holy.  A way that preserves human dignity and promotes constructive solutions to the problems that arise between us.
This morning’s Parshah, Korach, includes the biggest internal threat to Moses’ leadership in the entire Torah.  Korach, Datan, Aviram, and 250 other Israelites band together to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
While pulling back the layers of their argument can be somewhat tricky, it is clear from the outcome of the story that Korach’s claims are not just.  Moses and Aaron have not abused their positions, and Korach is after personal power and prestige, despite his populist rhetoric.
The rabbinic tradition holds up this episode as the model for an argument that is based on the wrong things.  Mishnah Avot, composed nearly two thousand years ago, teaches the following:  “Every disagreement that is for the sake of Heaven, its end will endure.  But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, its end will not endure.”  Then it asks for examples.  “What is an argument for the sake of Heaven?  The arguments of the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai.  And one that is not for the sake of Heaven?  The arguments of Korach and his company.”  (Mishnah Avot 5,17)
From this morning’s parshah.  We know that Heaven frowned upon Korach’s claim, because he and his followers are consumed by fire, and swallowed up by the earth.  But what of the argument for the sake of heaven?  What is it about the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shammai that is so holy.
The Talmud records an argument that once took place between the two schools that went on for three years.  Each school claimed that the law followed its position.  At the end of three years, a bat kol, a heavenly voice came down and pronounced elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim.  These and these are both the words of the living God, v’halachah k’veit Hillel, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.
This is a theologically rich story, with which we are not going to get too involved this morning.  But when the follow-up question is asked “Why did the school of Hillel merit that the law should follow its position?” the answer tells us something about the nature of holy fighting.
The students of the school of Hillel, we are told, were kind and modest.  They would study both their own teachings as well as the teachings of their opponents, the school of Shammai.  And not only that,  they would mention the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.
It is this style of arguing that our tradition finds so praiseworthy.  Breaking this down, we can identify three elements modeled by the school of Hillel.
First, a kind and gentle attitude.  Second, an eagerness to learn and understand the position of the other.  And finally, not just giving respect to the opinions of one’s opponents, but verbally acknowledging and validating them.
This teaching comes in the context of a discussion of Jewish law, but it is really modeling how to approach situations any time there is a difference of opinion.
It asks us to respect those who disagree with us, to recognize them as human beings, and to acknowledge that they are motivated with just as much passion as we are.  This is not to say that every claim is a just one, or that we should be any less fervent in our beliefs.  Just that we recognize that as human beings, we are limited in our knowledge, and we can never really know the Truth (with a capital T) or understand the mind of God.
The world is filled with disagreements.  There are the big ones, between countries, and ethnic groups.  And then there are the small ones, the ones that take place between individuals.  We all get in disagreements.  We fight with those who are closest to us, our partners, our children, parents, siblings, friends.  The question we must ask ourselves is: When we fight, how can we do it with holiness?
Whenever we argue, whether we are the ones who started it or whether it is the other person, our natural inclination is to be defensive.  To interrupt, or to yell.  To not really listen to what the other person is saying.  Or to trade insult for insult.  It is simple Newtonian physics.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  You push me by starting an argument, I’m going to push back.  But all that does is raise the pressure in the middle.  Even if someone “wins,” there is never any forward progress in the relationship
But the school of Hillel offers us a Jewish approach to holy fighting.  Consider taking a different approach the next time you find yourself in an argument.
Let the other person speak first, and let them say everything they have to say.  Then before jumping to your counter-argument, let your opponent know that you have heard them.  Validate the fact that they have an opinion and feelings, and that you have heard them, and have tried to understand them.  Reflect back what you just heard.
Then, say what you are feeling.  But do it without accusing, and without judging.  You might be familiar with the concept of I/You statements.  I felt X when you did Y.  It is a technique often used with kids to try to help them settle their differences, but it is a great tool for reconciliation among adults as well.
Here is how it works.  We tend to fight with You statements.  Using blame and judgment.  A You statement might go like this, and by the way this is a completely hypothetical example:  “You hurt my feelings when you went to watch TV instead of helping me do the dishes.”  That is going to be put me on the defensive.  It is blaming me for hurting the other person.
An I statement, however, would say the same thing, but make a few subtle changes.  “I felt hurt and ignored when you went to watch TV while I did the dishes.”
Notice there is no accusation, and no judgment in that statement.  I felt hurt and ignored.  Those are my feelings.  Nobody can deny them, or take them away from me.  The other person is now in a position of responding to his or her partners hurt feelings, rather than a personal attack.
It might surprise us to find that disagreements using this kind of language are somehow transformed from fights into problem-solving.  Both parties end up feeling validated, are more likely to take responsibility for their actions and the results of their actions, and nobody feels attacked.  Instead of us being opponents, facing each other with swords drawn, we end up being partners, joined at the hip, attacking the problem together.  And that allows us, and our relationship to move forward.
The I/You technique is something that we can train ourselves to use, and it can make a huge difference in our lives.  It can get us away from Korach arguments, and into Beit Hillel/Beit Shammai arguments.
Unfortunately, we have a bit less control over the fighting that takes place on the macro scale.  The Korach-like, not for the sake of heaven, types of arguments seem to dominate the airwaves, including, sadly, among the Jewish people.  This week, there was a terribly incendiary letter written by Rabbi Moshe Amar, the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, a government employee paid with public funds.  He was responding to an Israeli Supreme Court decision from a few weeks ago that ruled that non-Orthodox Rabbis, that is to say Reform and Conservative Rabbis, who are serving communities in kibbutzim and rural areas, should be paid as public servants with state funds.  Israel does not have separation of church and state the way we do in America.  The Rabbinate is a part of the government, and every community has a chief rabbi and a rabbinic council.  Until this decision, only Orthodox Rabbis selected by the ultra-Orthodox dominated Rabbinate could serve in these functions, even though a significant majority of Israeli Jews are not Orthodox.
In response, Rabbi Amar wrote a letter, on official state letterhead, calling on all Jews to come to a rally this coming Tuesday to protest the decision.  Listen to some of the language he used:  He accuses the Reform and Conservative movements of “uproot[ing] and destroy[ing] Judaism” and says that we have “already brought horrendous destruction on the Jewish people in the Diaspora, by causing terrible assimilation and an uprooting of all of the fundamental principles of the Torah.”  He is talking about us, in this room, right now, celebrating Shabbat together in joy.
Worst of all, he calls on Jews “to stop those who would sabotage [modern Hebrew: commit terrorism] and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.”
This, at a time when Israel is facing the threat of Iran going nuclear.  In a week in which terrorists crossed the border from the Sinai peninsula and attacked Israeli workers, killing one.  And also in a week in which Hamas launched hundreds of missiles into Israel from Gaza.  You want to talk about threats to the Jewish people, those are real threats.
The idea that the the biggest danger to the survival of Judaism is the Israeli government paying a few shekels to Reform and Conservative Rabbis, out of the Ministry for Sport and Culture no less, is not only ludicrous, but it is divisive, hate-filled, and undemocratic.  And frankly, someone who is an employee of the state has no business calling on followers to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court, nor of trying to impose a particular religious worldview on every Jew in the country.  I understand that ultra-Orthodox communities have a very strict interpretation of Torah that opposes the approach of more liberal movements.  But when any religious group uses its political power to coercively impose what it considers to be God’s will on the rest of the nation, that is bordering on holy war.
This is so far from the ideal demonstrated by the school of Hillel, whose students would behave gently, learn their opponents’ arguments, and respect them by acknowledging those arguments first.
This problem is pervasive in the world.  In international politics, domestic politics, in the Jewish community, and in our own lives.  I don’t know if there is much we can do to directly effect what is going on in other parts of the world, but we certainly can focus on ourselves.
Judaism guides us in every aspect of our lives.  It is not just about what we do when come to synagogue.  From the moment we wake up until the the time when we go to sleep, we are given the challenge of living lives of holiness.
When Korach challenged Moses, he said as much.  Aren’t all the people holy?  Yes they are, potentially, but Korach himself was not behaving all that holy.  He was trying to gain power.  But the idea of being holy is something that Judaism embraces.  We can make any moment into a holy one.  When we come to synagogue.  When we celebrate Shabbat at home with our families.  When we walk into a room with a mezuzah on the door.  And yes, even when we fight.  We have to learn how to fight holy, not engage in holy war.