This is a packed week for me, as we leave this weekend for Elat Chayyim for the Smicha Week and then the DLTI Week. Oy, so much, so fast.
And we are approaching the Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of my father, Reb Sholom (z'l), so I have been thinking a great deal about him. He was the 22nd rabbi in his family (that he knew about). His Smicha was from Wacz, Hungary and Orthodox, although he did not fit that label. In fact, he was really quite "renewal" in most of his ways. I didn't realize how much so back when he was alive (renewal was not yet the term it is today), but it is so clear to me now.
He died in 1974, which had a lot to do with my not being able to pursue further rabbinical studies back then, thanks to finances and the need to join households with my mother (a'h). She lived with me from that time until about two years after I married Bill, when she moved to her own apartment nearby.
I am working now at editing some of the notes my father left (my mother was the transcriber of his oral teachings - mostly torahs (teachings, insights), with some references in his handwriting, so I imagine he either read over the notes or she asked him for the reference when she was writing and he would scribble it there to make it easier for her). My entire time at Kallah, I was struck by how much he would have enjoyed that experience.
My Shabbat tallit is an interesting memory of my parents. Those of you who have davvened with me on a Shabbat have seen it, I am sure. It is a large P'nai Or fabric with a light purple Atarah and dark blue fringe, all trimmed with a purple and blue metallic ribbon. I imagine most people who see it today think that I made it recently. However, the story behind it is much longer than that. I graduated college in 1972 and was going on to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. My parents had asked me what I wanted for graduation and I had heard abut Reb Zalman's tallitot and they sounded wonderful, so I requested one of those, a large ("full") size one. My parents ordered the fabric (I think the largest size made....) and my mother and I made it -- back in the very brief summer of 1972. It went with me to Israel that year and has been with me ever since. My very modern looking renewal tallit is about to turn 30 years old.
I had lost Reb Zalman's name as being associated with the tallit fabric over the years, and it was only when I found Jewish renewal in my search for Smicha that I realized the connection -- some times it takes us a while to come home. Reb Marcia told me when she first saw it, that there were only a few of these particular weaves made, so I realize how special this tallit really is, above and beyond the personal value. And it was honored at the first weekend of Kallah to be used as the table cover under the Torah read so magnificently by Hazzan Jack Kessler after it fell from my shoulders at just the right time during the Hakafat Torah (taking round the Torah). I lifted Torah high and the tallit (which had been slipping all through the hakafah) fell, caught by Reb Marcia and put to great use.
The tefillin I wear are also a gift from my father, as were his instructions on the wearing and care of them. My father never pushed me to wear either tallit or tefillin, but he also never discouraged me from it either. As I grew to adulthood, I realized that most women did not wear them (my mother never did) and when I would question my father about this, he would say simply, "that's her/their choice."
He practiced in a conservative shul, usually in small towns. Small town shulery frustrated him many times, but he was always hopeful that something would grow from his efforts. He would put great emphasis on the children -- saying that the children were the key to our future. He would spend long hours with them, sometimes quipping that, with some luck, maybe they might teach their parents. He would tell Baal Shem Tov (z'l) stories many times and taught in his name that there are many ways to seek God and to love the Holy One.
I am only now coming to really appreciate all of the truly wonderful things he taught me when I was really still too young to grasp it all. I often tell people that I am remembering things as I study that I never knew -- I am sure some of that original teaching was from him. He taught me to look to nature for many answers, he taught me to look at the essence of people, not their exteriors (maybe that's why I have such trouble with names?). He taught me to love Torah and learning and teaching. He taught me that there are many "right" answers and that people have to each find their own answers, according to their own criteria. He taught that the key to living "right" was working as hard as I could at not hurting other people, other animals and other living things.
Like all humans, he was not perfect -- he often lost his patience with hypocrisy and form without meaning -- in fact these frustrations were the source of most of his discomfort in the Conservative Judaism in which he usually served. His English, spoken with a strong Hungarian accent, was far from perfect. Sometimes his command of English led people to think he did not understand either them or what he himself was saying. While this attitude was most often to their loss, it was also a source of pain and frustration to him. He worked at improving his English, but spelling was always a challenge to him. We used to joke that while his vocabulary was more extensive than my mother's, her spelling and grammar were much better.
It is an interesting comment about how we judge people's intelligence by external influences on their speech -- accents, poor grammar, stuttering, lisps, and so on, can cause people to misjudge the message being delivered. Sometimes, what we think is a curse was really meant as or becomes a blessing, and sometimes it is the other way around.
1. Parsha details: Num 22:2-25:9 ( tri 22:39-25:9 ) [ Haftorah Micah 5:6-6:8 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Balak hires Bilaam to curse Yisra'el, Bilaam has an experience with his donkey, who talks, three occasions of contracted curses becoming blessings, Yisra'el mingling with Mo'av/Midian and Pin'khas slaying an openly rebellious man and the Midianite woman he was with.
Two major things going on in this Parsha -- and they are actually intertwined. It is easy to focus on the story of Balak and Bilaam (Sefer Balak it used to be called -- the book of Balak), so I will leave that part to later.
First, let's look at the last nine pasukim (verses) of the Parsha -- where the narrative picks up after the book of Balak concludes. It actually serves as the introduction to the next week's Parsha by introducing Pin'khas, the son of Eleazar, the Cohen.
Yisra'el is camped at Shittim (hated place) and starts to mingle and go after the daughters of Mo'av (whose king was busy with Bilaam with the cursing business). And once again, the women prove to be the stronger spiritual influence and the men who go after these priestess-harlots, end up "attached" to Baal-Peor, the local god-cult. In typical biblical summary, we are given no time period for this event.
But the situation becomes serious; the people are now sacrificing and bowing (worshipping) to their (feminine - plural) gods. Elohey-hen is very specifically the god of these harlots, and we can only guess at the details involved in this sex-cult. From later in the next Parsha, we will also learn that Bilaam is at least an advisor away from YHVH in this mess. Torah is not clear if Bilaam talked to the men who were chasing the harlots or to the harlots themselves. We'll talk about this some more in a later d'var.
Somehow, from this contact a plague (furious anger of YHVH) is started, an early STD, spread as these types of things usually are. And we are told that the nation, the "'am" starts to become part of the cult -- I am reminded of a section in the description of this type of cult in Thomas Cahill's "The Gifts of the Jews : How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels". It is not hard to see an attraction if these cults were similar to what Cahill described in great detail.
So Moshe and the judges get together to plan what they will do. While they are deciding on drastic action -- killing all the men who attached themselves (that's the word Torah uses) to this cult, in traipses a man and a Midianite harlot -- and they do their thing in full view of Moshe and the people, right at the opening to the tent of Meeting. Well, Pin'khas has had it. He gets up, grabs a lance and (in a wonderful Torah punning on tent/belly/womb) pierces them through. And so the plague ends with 24,000 dead. (That's a lot of attached B'nai Yisra'el)
This brief description probably alludes to great detail and obvious understanding on the part of the original audience. The contrast between this part of the Parsha and the Balak story that precedes it are striking in style and depth of content, but perhaps not in subject.
We get two views of Yisra'el in this Parsha -- the external and the internal. The Balak story, polished, rehearsed and wonderful represents the external view of Yisra'el. Yisra'el is seen as pure, blessed, without sin, all-powerful. Awesome.
The internal view sees the bad stuff, the wandering, the rebellion, the lusting after other things. One can only imagine the wickedness between members of Yisra'el that this rebellion might have encouraged. Perhaps that was the real plague?
As with much of this part of Torah, the narrative is interspersed with pieces and parts of laws and other teachings, so it will take us about three Parshayot to get most of the details about the time with the Midianites that were part of Mo'av. So we are left in this Parsha with just a taste of the relationship between the Mo'avite Midianites and Yisra'el.
But wait a minute, Moshe married a Midianite woman, Tziporah (Balak was the son of Tzipor). Moshe and his father-in-law, Yitro, parted friends. And how does Mo'av get into the picture? Well, Mo'av was the son of Lot by his eldest daughter. The Mo'avites and the Midianites (Midian was a son of Avraham by Keturah, after Sarah) always lived somewhat closely. Or at least some Midianites always appear to be living in the plains of Mo'av. There are many disputes and skirmishes between Mo'av and Midian throughout TaNaKH. And both of them live near Yisra'el, both during the wandering and later, after Yisra'el is established in the Land. This will be a theme that will thread in and out of TaNaKH.
3. Some Observations
The story of Balak and Bilaam forms a distinct unit, separate from the rest of Torah. If you read through the end of last week's Parsha and continue with chapter 25 in this week's Parsha, you will notice that the narrative does exactly that -- it continues. And the text, the columns of Balak look very different from the surrounding columns. Before and after this section there are many breaks and openings in the text, not so with the part that Talmud once referred to as Sefer Balak -- the Book of Balak (nor Parsha).
This is an example of an account told many times, polished, edited, just right that was incorporated intact into Torah. The Hebrew looks different, reads differently. This is one of the more noticeable insertions/ incorporations.
Another interesting question -- since Yisra'el is not directly a participant in these events, how did we learn about them to include the story? How did Bilaam's words make it into our davvening in such a prominent position (Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya'akov... -- How goodly are your tents O Jacob...)? How did the timing of this cursing/blessing coincide with the mingling of Yisra'el with the harlots?
And then there is the subtle point that Bilaam's methods work -- they give Bilaam the right answer, he does talk to the One, without question. With stubbornness, perhaps. With ego abounding, certainly. But definitely with the Holy One. This is another of Torah's clear declarations that for others, other methods work (at least to approach the One and hear back) -- they are just not acceptable methods for Yisra'el.
Of course, we get just such a little picture of who and what Bilaam was. We are left to discern most of his character from the white space -- and there is little of it in this Parsha. The next few Parshayot will give us more insight. And so we close the Parsha with a recognition that Bilaam, not of Yisra'el, blesses Yisra'el because YHVH tells him to do so, that Bilaam has a very large ego and may not be an altogether nice guy. And yet, he gives us one of the most powerful phrases in our liturgy.
When you couple this with the haftorah in Micah, which ends with "You have been told, human, what is good and what YHVH seeks from you : simply that you do justice and love mercy and walk in purity with your God."
4. Intimate Expansion
This week's Parsha is about Intimate Expansion. The intimacy is about compassion, mercy. The Expansion is the solid foundation that allows things to grow and mature.
You could say that Bilaam's blessing was a gift of Mercy on Yisra'el -- for, as usual, we are not as pure as Bilaam sees us. And that blessing is and was so powerful that is still works magic for us -- who is not moved by that opening prayer?
5. 17th of Tammuz
This Sunday was the 17th of Tammuz -- the anniversary of the breaching of Jerusalem's city walls and also the breaking of the two tablets. A public fast day. One of the more minor ones -- from sunrise through sunset only.
A special Torah reading is conducted on fast days -- the portion dealing with the instructions for the second tablets and also the time when YHVH passes before Moshe so that Moshe can see his back. Also where Moshe begs for forgiveness for Yisra'el. It is interesting to note that YHVH mentions three types of sins which will be felt for generations -- up to three or even four generations: Sins committed through planning, sins of rebellion and sins of not knowing (Khatati, lo yadati -- I sinned, I did not know). Moshe asks for forgiveness for sins committed through planning and sins of not knowing. He does not ask for forgiveness of sins of rebellion.
And YHVH grants us a brit (covenant) in response to Moshe's plea -- what is our status with sins of rebellion? These are the hardest sins from which to make tshuvah, repentance, return. Do the children suffer from our actions of rebellion? When we do wrong, do we stop to think about who else we hurt besides ourselves?
And so we enter the period of sadness between the breach of the walls as we approach the destruction of the Temple in just over two weeks.
1.Blessings and curses: When we curse, who is really cursed. When we bless, who is blessed? Blessing and cursing establish connections between giver and receiver and between Giver and Receiver. There is a four-way connection here. "As we bless the Source of life, so we are blessed" There is a bit of the Source in all of us. How can we curse or bless anyone, including ourselves, without doing so to the Source and receiving in kind.
2. Blessings and curses: When are blessings curses and curses blessings? Think of one time when you thought something was a curse, but now you see it was a blessing. Do the same for a blessing. We have such a limited view of the universe that sometimes blessings look like curses and curses look like blessings. May you seek only to bless and may your blessings bless both you and the one you are blessing. And may this blessing not curse.
3. Names: Bilaam refers to YHVH as El Shaddai and El Elyon. How many names do you know for the Holy One? Why do we have so many names? How many names do you have? Why do you have more than one name if you are only one person? Do different people call you different names, do the same people call you different names at different times? What's in a name? How did Bilaam know all of these names for YHVH?
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
And you can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved