The Big Picture – Parshat Balak 5781

As a kid I used to love those brain teaser books that showed you one small part of a bigger picture, and you had to guess what the big picture was. These puzzles are a wonderful metaphor for our lives. What conclusions do we make based on just a small part of the picture? When you only hear one side or one snippet of a story, do you jump to conclusions on the assumption that you understand the situation in its entirety, when in reality you only know the smallest amount? This is also true about communities. Our community is made up of many individuals who come together to create something bigger than themselves. This is what makes a community beautiful. 

In a sense, we do this with the Torah by reading one portion at a time. Although we know the story after reading it over and over again each year, these small portions eventually add up to the story of the Israelite nation from birth to entry into the Land of Israel. The text each week gives us one deeper layer than the week before into understanding the bigger picture. Since we, the readers, are with the Israelites from beginning to end, we know them in their entirety, but when the Israelites encounter other communities on their journey, they’re only observed bit by bit. In other words, if you were to encounter the Israelite nation halfway through the Torah, you’d have no context for who they were or what they had been through. That happens in this week’s Torah portion. 

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 Balaam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balaam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balaam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balaam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balaam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

In laying out the scenario to Balaam, King Balak says about the Israelites, “You will see only a portion of them.” One interpretation suggests that in order to curse them, Balaam had to see them with his own eyes, but Balak didn’t want Balaam to get the full view in case he ended up siding with them (which he eventually does). According to another theory, the purpose of this statement is to tell Balaam that while the small number of people he would encounter might not seem impressive, their numbers were actually much greater, and they needed to be fearful and on guard. But in either interpretation, Balak is acknowledging and even admitting that Balaam isn’t getting a complete picture of this nation of people. Instead, Balak is playing mind games and withholding his predisposed and misinformed beliefs.

This is what made these past 15 months truly difficult. For almost a year and a half, we’ve only been seeing a portion of each other at a time. Birnbach Hall wasn’t full of people on Rosh Hashanah. Families weren’t shoulder to shoulder at my house for Fourth Fridays. Even those times when we had a hundred or more people on Zoom together, you can only fit a certain number of people on the screen at a time. If you “only see a portion” of the people, it’s nearly impossible to get a sense for what this community really means.

As the world starts to open again and more restrictions are lifted, we’re almost at the point where we can once again see the big picture. And as one of the people who has been fortunate to have the vantage point of looking out at our community in its entirety, I can’t wait to have that view again.

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.