Frenemies – Parshat Balak 5777

frenemies

There are some people who bring out the best in you and others who bring out the worst. There are some friends who, though they may drive you crazy at times, are true friends and make your life complete because you know them. Then there are those you stay in touch with only because you follow the rule of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. However you classify the people in your life, it’s the interactions we have that determine our behaviors and even how we view ourselves. For this reason the company we keep is so important.

This week we read Parshat Balak, a narrative filled with opportunities for taking the right or wrong action and saying the right or wrong words. You know this parshah – it’s of course the one with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

We often get stuck in the cartoon, supernatural aspects of this story. But what made Balak so upset with the Israelites in the first place? He saw them as a people dwelling apart, not “reckoned” among the nations. The Israelite people were “other,” and that was a big issue for Balak since, for him, other meant different, non-conforming, and a threat to his leadership.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, the 18th-century rabbi regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism, suggests that the Jewish people have survived not despite the enmity of their neighbors, but precisely because of it. Maintaining a “frenemy” status prevented the Israelites from becoming too close to their neighbors and assimilating into their culture. What Balak saw as the potential downfall of the Israelite nation was actually their saving grace in this time of transition.

We are the company we keep, but that’s not necessarily always in our best interest. As we can learn from this parshah, the people we surround ourselves with are the people we tend to identify with, but it’s by maintaining our true identity and being true to who we are that we are able to survive.

Laundry List – Parshat Balak 5776

Laundry List

I can’t let things pile up. The first drafts of my High Holy Day sermons were done this spring. When I get home after a trip, I unpack immediately. I do laundry before the hamper is stuffed to overflowing. I don’t wait until the challah is finished baking before I start washing the measuring cups. If you know me, you know this is not to brag about any organizational skills. Rather, it’s about knowing myself well enough to know I don’t do well under pressure, and the fear of that stress keeps me checking things off the list before the list becomes unmanageable.

There’s a message in this week’s parshah about overwhelming tasks, but it usually takes a back seat to the more, shall we say, whimsical elements. This week we read a narrative filled with opportunities to do the right or wrong action and say the right or wrong words. Yes, you’re remembering correctly, this is the parshah with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say.

On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, which refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. The donkey can see the angel; Balam cannot. So Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey. The donkey acts out, and ultimately rebuke is received.

As Balak is trying to get Balam to curse the nation, he says to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them – you will only see a portion of them; you will not see all of them.” One interpretation of this passage suggests that Balak knows how intimidating the entire Israelite nation would be, so he tries to help Balam see them piecemeal.

The Kotzker Rebbe, the great Polish Talmudic scholar, teaches that ordinary people combine to create extraordinary communities – sites of holiness and charity. The Jewish people, perhaps ordinary as individuals, are perceived by other religions and cultures to be extraordinary based on our commitment to each other, to doing good, and to healing our world. That perception is perpetuated today not because of our numbers (we are a minority by far), but because as a whole we are committed to the same ideals. May we continue to see ourselves as greater than the sum of our parts, and may that always lead us to strengthening our world by letting goodness and mercy shine from our hearts.

Curse Words – Parshat Balak 5775

Curse Words

We get mixed messages when it comes to the power of words versus actions. Do we believe the pen is mightier than the sword, or do we believe sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Do we believe that actions speak louder than words, or do we believe that loose lips sink ships?  Which is it, words or actions?

This week we read a narrative filled with opportunities to do the right or wrong action and say the right or wrong words. Yes, you’re remembering correctly. This is the parsha with the talking donkey.  Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel.  God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say.

On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move.  As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. The donkey can see the angel; Balam cannot.  So Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

The donkey, in a voice I have to assume sounds remarkably like Eddie Murphy, since that’s my only other point of reference for talking donkeys, cries, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  Balam says to him, “You have made a mockery of me!  If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”  The donkey responds, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day!  Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”  Balam can only respond, “No.”  Actually, in the old JPS translation, Balam doesn’t say “No,” he says “Nay,” which adds a nice new layer to the meaning when you think about it.  At this point God opens Balam’s eyes so he too can see God as the roadblock.

Once he arrives in Moav, Balam is greeted by Balak with great honor, which changes to anger when Balam praises rather than curses the Israelites, as Balak had instructed him.

A talking donkey, a mystical sorcerer, war – it’s a complicated, dramatic parshah, to say the least.  But at the heart of it is the power of words.  Rabbinic commentary points out that Balam had set out to destroy an entire people simply by cursing them.  If that was possible, parents of teenagers all over the world would be in trouble.  Why is it that Balam sought to destroy a nation by cursing, but felt the threat of a sword was the only way to get a single donkey to move?

The problem with our “words versus action” debate is that it’s a two-sided concept, when it really should have three sides.  What completes that triangle?  Thought.  Words, actions, and thoughts are what move us forward.

Balam is too quick to jump into action, beating and threatening the donkey, not because he doesn’t speak first, but because he doesn’t think first.  Our challenge is to move from empty words and actions toward those of substance.  And the way to do that is through thought, through intention, through an understanding of the situation before anything else.  Only then will our words and actions carry the meaning they need to enact change.