30 Days – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5780

As the days seem to run together more than they usually do, it’s easy to lose track of weeks and months, but historically, dividing our year into 30-day segments has been not only significant, but necessary. When children are toddlers, we count their lives by how many months old they are. Bills are due every month. Programs we attend (now virtually) happen on a monthly basis. When we’re counting down to a major life cycle event like a bar mitzvah, we also count down by 30-day increments. There’s something almost instinctive about this time frame. Perhaps it’s because it has a clear, defined beginning and end. Or perhaps it’s because this cycle is naturally present in our lives in menstruation or the lunar cycle. Whatever the reason, the 30-day time frame has inherent value and meaning in our lives.

The number 30 also has biblical roots. Our double parshah this week, Parshat ChukatBalak, is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. 

Parshat Balak is also 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 because as it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. However, only the donkey can see the angel, Balam cannot, so Balam becomes angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

But it’s in Chukat where we see the significance of a month of time. In this section we read about the death of Aaron, and when Aaron dies, the community mourns for him for 30 days. In Hebrew and in Jewish mourning tradition, this is called Sheloshim, and this sacred period of mourning is still observed by many today following the loss of a loved one. For these 30 days life feels upside down, not just because of the emotions surrounding a death, but also because many Jews refrain from the normal celebrations of life, like parties or dances. Many people also do not shave or even listen to the radio. Abstaining from normal life for these 30 days following a loss are meant to help us readjust to our own lives and reenter the world in this new normal. 

Interestingly, just one parshah earlier, we learn about the redemption of a first-born child from service to the priest. This ceremony is also conducted after 30 days. In a sense, the adjustment of living without someone near to you is not unlike the adjustment to living with a new baby in the house – it’s a significant change. In both cases, life is different and new in ways never imagined before. 

The Torah understands that it takes time to adjust to new circumstances, and we are obligated as Jews to embrace that time. The more we can accept these transitional periods, the more capable we are of adapting and settling into healthy life rhythms as we change.

Point of View – Parshat Balak 5779

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This week we read the story of Balak and Balam. It’s the closest thing we have in the Torah to a Warner Brothers slapstick cartoon, in which this duo seeks to curse the Israelite nation, but everything that can get in their way to stop them, does. But if we can get past the talking donkey, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular message we read this week.

Balak and Balam go out to curse the Israelite nation, but they each have a different perspective. Balak can only identify the differences between himself and others – in this case the Israelites – and can only think to offer a curse. Balam on the other hand, although he intends to be negative, ends up seeing the positive. Balam opens his mouth to curse the Israelites, but instead this blessing comes out: “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael.” How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.

Those words may not have been Balam’s intent, but according to our commentary, this line accurately reflects Balam’s perspective, viewing the Israelites himself. Specifically, he sees that the Israelites, unlike other nations, set up their camp with their tents all facing the center, which created a sense of community while maintaining individual or family private space. This type of shared community represents a big cultural difference between the Israelites and their surrounding neighbors.

Balak intends to curse a culture and people that look different from him, while Balam, though not by choice, sees beauty and value in the diversity and compliments it. Parshat Balak, besides being known as sort of a cartoony story, is a reminder that fear or hatred of our differences is a choice. We can choose to be scared of a cultural identity other than our own, or we can choose to embrace it. We can use our words and our attitudes to berate or belittle, or we can see the blessing in our diversity.

Friends and Neighbors – Parshat Balak 5778

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Having recently gone through the process of renovating and expanding our house, I am all too familiar with city ordinances, HOA requirements, and the laws surrounding what I can and cannot do to my property. A lot of thought and energy goes into city and neighborhood planning. One of the reasons that Duncan and I chose our home and wanted to stay (as opposed to buying a bigger one) when our family grew was because of the setup of the neighborhood. Our neighborhood is set up in one big circle. There are spokes coming off the circle to a few side streets, but each of those ends in a cul-de-sac, putting you right back out into the communal goodness. In our intimate little neighborhood, we have relative privacy and also the joy of greeting one another as we step out for a walk or a dip in the community pool.

Building a community takes thoughtfulness and vision, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. 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 Balaam 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.  

When Balaam opens up his mouth to curse the Israelites, instead a blessing comes out. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” The words to Ma Tovu come out as a blessing of the people. This verse alludes to the setup of the camp, as Balaam saw that the arrangement of entrances to houses made it impossible for a family to see inside the tents of others. The Israelite tent city showed a respect for privacy.  

Judaism is a religion founded on and bound to building community. We require a minyan (a quorum of 10 people) in order to perform certain tasks precisely because community is so important. But our text today recognizes the importance of having space to yourself. The value of privacy is that it allows us a much needed dividing line between public and personal, thereby making private time and community time both more special.  

Ma tovu! How good is our community when we come together, when we respect the need for private space and when we build a sacred space in which we gather together.  

Frenemies – Parshat Balak 5777

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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.