So even though this year we don’t have a double-header parasha (combining Chukat and Balak) I am giving you a double-header musing. First, answering a question posed by the haftarah for Balak, and second, a revisit of some lessons learned (learning, to be learned) for parashat Balak. – Adrian
The haftarah for Balak is taken from the writings of the prophet Micah. At the end of the haftarah, we read the well-known and well-worn verse:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה־יְהֹוָ֞ה דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what G”d requires of you—only this: to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your G”d.
Lovely sentiment, that. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? Such a simple formula. Well, the heck with all that. I wanna go back a few verses:
עַמִּי מֶֽה־עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ וּמָה הֶלְאֵתִיךָ עֲנֵה בִֽי
My people! What have I done to you> Have I exhausted your patience? Answer Me!
Really, G”d? Really? You want to go there. You are absolutely sure? You must be. You had Micah say it. OK, let’s go there. Be careful what You wish for.
Where do I start? With the setup that was Gan Eden and humankind’s exile from it? The cohabitation of humans with the nefilim? With that flood of Yours? That business with confounding our speech due to Your petty jealousy of our silly little tower at Bavel? The nuking of S’dom and Gomorrah? There’s plenty more early on, but can we jump forward to our being enslaved in Egypt? How about how thickly you laid those plagues on the poor Egyptians? Drowning so many of them in the sea (or swamp, as the case may be?) Forty years of wandering in the wilderness? Your punishment of Miriam while giving Aaron not even a lashing with a wet noodle? Seriously,Your treatment of Moshe–just because he hit the rock instead of asking it nicely? Don’t even get me started on poor Nadav and Avihu. Or even Korach and his gang. A little grousing from the crowd and you wipe them out? (Then again, You did that a number of times, didn’t You?) Jumping ahead: David, you let David, the horny shepherd boy who sent Uriah to his death just for sex-he will be the ancestor of Moshiach? Shlomo, the philanderer, gets to build Your temple? Jerusalem is destroyed and Your people are sent into exile, not once, but twice? You gave the House of Hashmon victory over the Syrian-Greeks? Those despots? Then we get 1500 plus years of persecution, torture, and worse?
You sent us prophets, but they don’t all share a consistent message with us. It’s all so confusing.
Then there’s this Torah You gave us. It is not to difficult for you to understand, You tell us, right in the text of Torah itself. Right. That’s why we have Misha, Gemara, Talmud, and commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries. Thousands of years and we’re still arguing and quibbling over what You meant by things as simple as “don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” What the heck does that mean, anyway?
Pogroms. Massacres. The Inquisition. Being kicked out of Spain and Portugal. Jump ahead to the shoah. ‘Nuff said.
You give us a modern state of Israel, and surround it with people bent on its destruction. You do like irony, don’t you?
So I think, obviously, You know my answer to the question You asked (or had Micah ask for You.) It is an unequivocal YES. You done us wrong., You exhausted our patience.
Yes, we are still here. Yes, it’s pretty easy to blame us for all that has happened. Yet You made us. You gave us free will. Did you not foresee what might result from that? And You call Yourself omniscient? Ha, I say. Ha!
No doubt You have done wonders for us. You continue to do wonders for us. I encounter them every day. As as people, as Your people, we’re not so bad off, at the moment. Though we do seem to be doing a lot of internal bickering, and we just can’t seem to agree on just what exactly You really want and expect us to do.
We do as You ask, at least some of the time. We DO remember what Balak planned for us, and how you use Balaam to answer him. We DO remember our coming out of Egypt. We DO remember Your Torah. We DO seek to follow Your ways (our problem is not just following, but also our desperate need for rationales to do so. We also struggle with whether You really meant for Your rules to be for all time, without adjustment for circumstances, and the technological, scientific and philosophical progress of we, Your creations.
Have You abrogated? Is that what the rabbis were saying at the end of the story of the silly ovens of Akhnai? “My children have defeated me.” Does that nullify the covenant? (I sure hope not.)
So, forgive me G”d, for having the hubris to say it, but: don’t ask us that question, because You know the answer. You have f*cked around with us. But it’s not too late to fix things. Honesty goes a long way in covenantal relationships. Just admit it, and maybe we can go on from here to walk humbly with You. You just have to do the humility thing a bit, too.
(end of Part I)
These words, first written in 2004, ring as true as ever.
Random Musing Before Shabbat – Balak 5764
Bad Habits – Revised and Updated for 5773 (2013)
I have a bad habit. Really, it’s true! (Well, truth be told, I have a plethora of bad habits. But we’ll save the rest of them for other musings and just focus one this one really bad habit.)
So what is this dark, troubling secret of a bad habit I’m going to reveal. Here I go. Ready? Ok, here we go. (Have I built up enough suspense yet?) My bad habit is…
I often respond too hastily to e-mail messages, Twitter posts, Facebook posts and comments, blogs, etc.
There. I’ve admitted it.That’s the first step on the road to correcting a bad habit.
Technology is, or can be a really wonderful tool. It has brought many blessings. In fact, technology is a blessing. I am thrilled and passionate to be a part of the latest revolution in the Jewish education community, a group on Facebook known as JedLab. This new network of now over 800 folks is re-igniting my passion, re-stoking my furnace. It is also putting my ability to deliberate and be thoughtful before responding to the test. Majorly.
Technology also is, or can be, a curse. Facebook posts and comments, tweets, blog comments, and E-mails are all cases in point. Sometimes, when you intend to send a blessing, it comes out a curse. And sometimes our digital words intended as curses come out blessings instead.
All this was on my mind as I read the familiar words of parashat Balak this week. And this surely influenced the message I took away from this encounter with Torah, as you will see.
When the elders of Moab and Midian delivered the message/invitation from King Balak to Balaam, asking Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, Balaam does not respond immediately. Balaam asks the messengers to spend the night, allowing him the time to “consult” with G”d and formulate the appropriate reply to Balak’s request.
When King Balak sends yet another, more important group of dignitaries as messengers to implore Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, Balaam again takes a night to consult with G”d before responding.
Sometimes, even a night and a quick consultation with G”d isn’t enough time to ponder and formulate a response that’s appropriate. Though, during their consultation, G”d permits Balaam to accompany the Moabite and Midianite dignitaries, the ensuing and well-known incident with Balaam and his ass demonstrates, perhaps, that Balaam may still have been too hasty in his “reply,” that is, his decision to go with the messengers to see King Balak. Apparently, that’s not what G”d wanted (expected?)
Another cautionary note can be drawn from the Torah’s tale of Balak and Balaam. Balaam did, indeed, take some time and consult with G”d before replying to Balak’s requests. Still, even with this effort to carefully craft and phrase replies in just the right words, the message wasn’t understood as intended. King Balak didn’t “get” the meaning/intent of Balaam’s (and, in reality, G”d’s) words. King Balak doesn’t understand that it’s not about money, reward, flattery, respect or anything of that nature. Balaam is saying that, even paid for his services, Balaam can and will only say what G”d has told him to say. King Balak clearly believes that every seer has his price.
Thus, there are valuable lessons for me, and, I hope, for you, dear readers, all throughout parashat Balak to remind us to not be hasty or trigger- (or send-key-) happy. We can take the time we need to allow G”d’s voice to influence and inform our replies. Amidst the noise, hubbub, and rush of modern life, it’s not always easy to discern that still, small voice. Yet it is so crucial to harmonious, loving human discourse that G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform all that we do and say (or write, “keyboard,” “graffiti,” “text,” “tweet,” “post,” “comment,” etc.)
I recently participated in a Jewish service in celebration of someone becoming a bat mitzvah that was held, ironically enough, in a Friend’s Meeting House. At Quaker “services,” essentially, people don’t speak or say anything until they feel moved by G”d’s spirit to do so, They take that seriously. Like 12-Step meetings, cross-talk is discouraged. As I watched the ebullient and talkative crowd (with its share of loudmouths Jews of the unfortunate stereotype that can be shockingly accurate – though there were plenty of equally talkative Christians and people of other faith traditions there) I was amused by the juxtaposition. I cannot imagine what the regular attendees of the Quaker meetings held in that space would make of our crowd! I do know, whatever their reaction, they would be respectful and accepting. They would speak only when appropriate to speak, and their words would be fair, measured, and appropriate. I wish I could believe the same would be true if the reverse were the case.
All these years later, re-reading the first version of this musing, I realize how I have still not learned to control my impulse as well as I can. I have gotten better. I still have a long way to go, and I am thankful for this annual encounter with parashat Balak to remind me to take a long at this behavior of mine
When we fail to heed the cautionary reminders of parashat Balak, we may well end up needlessly flaying our own asses, and having them cry out to us, wondering what they have done or said that we are treating them so ill. We might find our blessings turned into curses. If we allow ourselves a little time to let G”d, Torah, and Judaism inform what we do and say, we may yet see our curses turned into blessings. Ken y’hi ratson. Ken y’hi ratsoneinu.
©2013, portions ©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: