Archive for the '4.06 Chukat / Balak' Category

The Painted Bird

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parshamenagerie“? Why does Balak hate the Israelite people?

This animalistic vision of Balak the son of Bird’s hate evokes for me images from the cover of  Jerzy Kosinski‘s  book the Painted Bird.

Image result for painted bird jerzy

In this controversial 1965 novel by Kosinski describes World War II as seen by a boy wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. Like the book of Numbers, this book describes the boy’s encounter with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in a huge amount of violence – often at the expense of the child. While the book has been said to depict peasants in a derogatory fashion, some argue that it was not a particular social group, but all people, who are viewed as inherently predisposed to cruelty.

The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. There we read:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone. (Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird)

When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.

Back to Balak, what separated the Israelites from other nations? There was no biological difference. The soul difference was their faith and practice. But if they lost their faith or stopped their practice, what separated the Israelites? There in the story of their Exodus we read:

You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. ( Exodus 12:6-7)

We separated from our neighbors by painting our door posts. The book of Numbers is the story of the nation of Israel wandering in the desert after having been liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Like the Painted Bird, we see the Israelites being sent back to interact with the flock of humanity after having been painted as different and their struggle to keep their faith and practice. While the authorship or authenticity of the book might be suspect, for me the Painted Bird has always been a haunting portrayal of what happens when humanity gives into hate and scorn, we are all but savage animals ripping apart what we perceive as a threat. Sadly we have to ask if  anything has really changed?

 

Perfect Selfless Gift

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Mosche striking the rock to get water. There we read:

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Mosche took the rod from before the Lord, as God had commanded him. Mosche and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Mosche raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Mosche and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12)

Mosche has given of all of his blood sweat and tears to liberate his people, but in the end will not be given the satisfaction of joining them to complete the mission of entering the Promised Land. And why is this the case?

It seems from hear it is because he did not follow God’s instructions to the letter. Instead of talking to the Rock he hit it. On another level Mosche is excluded because there is a greater lesson to be taught to the Israelite people as to the value of talking over jumping to the physical violence of hitting. But, maybe there is yet another reason Mosche cannot join them on this final journey.

I was thinking about this part of the Torah recently when I saw this amazing video of Mandy Harvey and her tryout for America’s Got Talent. If you have not yet seen it, you must. Check it out:

Her performance is inspiring. What does it mean to see yourself as an aspiring singer and then losing your hearing?  Yes she attributed her ability to her muscle memory, ability to feel the rhythm through her feet, and the use of a tuner. None of those techniques account for her strength in character. How do you bounce back from that? She is  truly impressive. As she sings about in the song, the only barrier was herself getting in the way. And the performance itself was amazing. What does it feel like to share a gift with millions of people without being able to experience it yourself? It seems like the most perfect selfless gift.

 

Mandy Harvey is a fascinating foil to Mosche in our Torah portion. Like Mandy Harvey being deaf being a reason that she did not want to sing, Mosche has a stutter that was preventing him from taking a leadership role. We read :

“Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” ( Exodus 4:10)

Like Mandy Harvey, Mosche perseveres beyond physical limitations and leads his people out of Egypt. Here in Chukat Mosche is being asked again to lead and get water from the Rock. This time he is asked not to strike the rock, but rather to use his voice. This is the core of his insecurity as a leader. Using his voice is a challenge to his leadership. Instead of stuttering in front of his people he hits the rock. The consequence of this that he will not be able to join them when they go into the Land. But maybe it is not a punishment. Like Mandy Harvey standing there giving a gift of her performance without being able to experience it herself, maybe Mosche needs to give a similarly selfless gift of having the people complete the mission without him joining them in the Land.

Good Life: Death and Chukkat

In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the bizarre rite of the para adumma– red heifer.  It was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Ṭum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. It does seems strange that some how the ash of one dead animal would deal with their fear of having come into contact with a dead body. The notion of a para adumma seems out of step with our lives. How do we make sense of this in the 21st Century?

I was thinking about this question when reading Atul Gawande’s  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In his bestselling book, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. There he writes:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

In today’s day we have removed death from our lives. Even doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And we the families go along with all of it.

So while it is crazy to imagine how the para adumma removed the impurity of death from the Israelites lives, it seems even crazier that we have feebly tried to removed death itself from our modern lives. We might not find ourselves going to the Priest for a consult, but we should find people who show us how to have the hard conversations about death before it is too late. Gawande writes:

Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.

 

No Church in the Wild

I have been thinking about the end of last week’s Torah portion discussing the Israelites committing idolatry and harlotry with the daughters of Moav. There we read:

 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.( Numbers 25: 6-8)

In Pinchas, this week’s Torah portion,  we learn that he is praised “covenant of peace”. How can this be the case? Pinchas and his vigilante justice seems like the opposite of a “covenant of peace”. And what do we make of the fact that he was the son of Aaron. How does this depict the priesthood?

I was thinking about this when listened to No Church in the Wild by Kanye West, Jay -Z, and Frank Ocean.

Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?

We make it out alive
All right, all right
No church in the wild

Tears on the mausoleum floor
Blood stains the coliseum doors
Lies on the lips of a priest
Thanksgiving disguised as a feast

I can imagine that there are circumstances when the ends justify the means, but it seems really hard to bring about a belief in God in the face of a mob through the lies (or in this case the aim) of a priest.

Talking Body

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals talking.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak the son of Zippor  ( bird). Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  And of course this story of a talking animal fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity.

In this context I have been thinking about Tove Lo‘s explicit earworm Talking Body. She sings:

Now if we’re talking body
You got a perfect one, so put it on me

I am not offended, by the lyrics ( the rest is even more explicit). In general I would argue that Judaism has a sex positive worldview. But still I would say that sex cannot be instead of other forms of communication. Rather, I would say sex should be the climax ( pun intended) of other forms of communication.  Similar to Bilaam being depicted as an ass by a talking donkey, we stand to regress to debase animals when we see sex as a stand alone form of communication. Talking bodies can have profound meaning in a broader conversation.

 

Hating Hate- Balak and the Cycle of a Fixed Mindset

I hate the word “hate”. How do I respond what I hear someone say, “I hate someone”? It is such a strong word to use so freely. But if we pause, as I think we need to, we might realize that we do not actually mean it. What would it mean genuinely to hate someone? What would someone need to do for us to hate them? While I know that camp is a bubble filled with love, it is hard to ignore all of the hate that is in the world right now.

I was thinking about this while reading Balak, this week’s Torah portion. While much of the portion deals with the prophet Balaam, his errand to curse the Jews, and his talking donkey, we often just gloss over the role of Balak who sent him on this errand. Why does Balak hate the Israelites? There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moav became very frightened of the people, because they were many; and Moav was disgusted because of the children of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian: ‘Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’–And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moav at that time. ( Numbers 22:2-4)

It all started when Balak saw the Israelites’ success over the Amorites. From there it seems that he quickly moves from fright, to disgust, to teaming up against the Israelites, to dehumanizing the Israelites calling them oxen, to enacting a plan to bring them down.  I am sure we can all relate to this cycle. How often do we respond well to the success of our friends and friends let alone the success of strangers or even enemies? We are often stuck in a fixed mindset. For some reason it is hard for us to use these experiences to inspire  ourselves to work harder. Hating them seems easier than dealing with our own deficiencies. But in the end as we curse other people’s success we ourselves miss out on the blessing of growth.

Jewish ethics are founded on the ideal that everyone is created in the Divine image. There is a part of every person that is a mystery of what potential goodness and Godliness may be  hidden within them.  To hate someone is to deny the unique nature of their creation. In trying to curse them some part of ourselves is diminished in not maintaining the search for the hidden goodness within them. It is our job to explore this mystery in everyone, maybe even more so for the people we hate or claim to hate us.

– I encourage you to read Mindset by Carol Dweck

The Alpha Nail

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Balak another stock character in our history who wanted to kill our people. This Antisemite hoped to exterminate the Israelites by getting the prophet Balaam to curse us. Balaam was reluctant to go, but eventually conceded to meet with Balak.  God was not happy that he was going, but clarifies that Balaam would only be allowed to say what God instructed him to say. With God’s permission Balaam was already out the door getting ready to do Balak’s bidding. His readiness to serve Balak angered God and he sends an angel to block his ass as he traveled. There we read:

And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she thrust herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again. And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto you, that you have hit me these three times?’ ( Numbers 22:23-28)

For being such a great prophet, it is surprising that Balaam could not see God acting in the world around him. Balaam is a model of the human penchant toward being stubborn. When we have something in mind it is hard not to see something that is right in front of us.

Recently saw an amazing video that has been circulating that connects in an interesting way to our Torah portion. If you have not seen it please watch ” It’s Not about the Nail“. Here it is:

This brilliant video plays with the tension between the Fix-It-Alpha-Male and the Lets-Talk-About-Feelings-Female. While these typologies need not be gendered, it is interesting to reflect on the conflict between these two ways of seeing the world. Like Balaam, sometimes there is something right in front of us that needs to be dealt with and other times there are things that demand our reflection and emotional connection. As a self realized Alpha Male, my tendency is to run to deal with life’s impediments. Lets identify the challenge and fix it. I am an eternal optimist. There is always a solution to every problem. In the case of the video, how can we just remove the nail?

Different people need different things. Sometimes people are not looking for solutions. These people just need us to feel comfortable sitting with their pain. As she says,” Don’t try to fix it. I just need you to listen.” Over time I have been humbled to realize that there are certain problems that do not have solutions. The only thing we can offer is our empathy. If I do not recognized people’s feelings as unseen impediments I too will be nothing more than an  ass. And if I think there is a solution other than just listening I am nothing more than Balaam.


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