Archive for the '4.06 Chukat / Balak' Category

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.

The Art of It All

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the continued travails of the Israelites in the desert. Here we learn about a plague of poisonous snakes. To save the people Moses makes a  Nehushtan or נחש הנחושת, a bronze snake upon a pole. There we read:

And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way. And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.’ And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many Israelites died. And the people came to Moses, and said: ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord, and against you; pray to the Lord, that  God might take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)

So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. What was the medicinal power of looking at it? The Mishna in Rosh HaShanah asks the same question. There we read:

But could the serpent kill or could the serpent keep alive? Only whenever Israel looked on high, and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven, were they healed; but if not, they perished. ( Rosh HaShanah 3:8)

As the Mishnah depicts it, it was not the bronze snake itself that saved them. Rather, looking at this piece of metal crafted by Moses inspired them, and that inspiration itself was what saved them.

From their herd mentality, to running after sex, to only thinking about food, throughout the book of Numbers we see the Israelites acting as animals. In this case they were complaining about their food and God sends snakes to stop their kvetching. As if to say, ” If you are going to act like animals, you can die like an animal”.  It is only the inspiration of Moses sculpture that saves them. In appreciating the human capacity to create art they rise above their simple basic animal tendencies. Life is not measured simply by the quality of the last meal you ate.  It is realizing this creative capacity that reminds us that we alone are created in image of the Creator. Art itself is our saving grace.

I was reminded of this recently when watching this TED talk.

Here we see human technology, innovation, design, and artistry imitate the natural world. As we see this robotic bird take off over the crowd we get a glimpse into what the Israelites felt when they peered at Moses bronze snake. Wow, if you can make that, what should I aspire to do with my God given talents? We should all take a moment to think about how we might tap into what makes us human to find new ways to soar above to ensure that we are all living inspired lives.

Learning from Animals

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 “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey.

This reminds me of one of my favorite TED talks.

In this piece, Janine Benyus discusses all the things we can/should learn from animals. Besides all of the amazing biological points that she makes, she teaches us that all too often we think about how to use animals and not what we have to learn from them. The donkey teaches Bilaam and us that animals are to me learned from and not just used. In the books of Numbers and in life we need to mimic the best of animal behavior and not just the worst. In the end we are animals, but that is not all. We need to be more than just animals, but we still have what to learn.


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