My last shabbos dinner in Pittsburgh is going to be pretty frugal, because I don’t want to leave any food behind and (because of the fast day Sunday) won’t have a lot of time to eat leftovers.
In the Torah portion, Balaam states that even if Balak gave him a palace filled with silver and gold, he could do nothing against God’s word (Numbers 22:18).
For silver I have herring salad. For gold I have blueberry blintzes and rugelach (though actually I’m not sure how golden they are). Maybe some bananas and dates as well (though I’m hoping to hold on to those so they can be my pre-fast meal).
From Jan Urbach of JTS
But here’s another possibility: perhaps the story is instead a dream Moses dreams. One hint of this is that Balaam comes from Petor (Num. 22:5), a word used for dream interpretation (e.g., in the Joseph narrative). Indeed, both the narrative context and several details (too numerous to list here) strongly suggest this is dreamwork, incorporating and transforming elements of Moses’s experiences, anxieties, doubts, and fears.
For example, Moses long resisted the prophetic role because of his difficulty speaking and his fears that his words would be ineffective. Most recently at this point, he’s been experiencing frustration and disappointment in moving forward: literal roadblocks in the form of foreign kings refusing to let the Israelites pass, and the ultimate roadblock—God has said he will not enter the Promised Land (Num. 20–21). His mortality is front and center, highlighted by the recent death of his siblings and leadership partners, Aaron and Miriam, and by the encampment now on the steppes of Moab, opposite Jericho, near Beit Peor, the place where he will die (also see Num. 22:1, 25, and Deut. 34:1). And he has grown distant from the people, with whom he once so strongly identified but from whom he will soon part ways. This is a new generation; they don’t share his past in Egypt, and he won’t share their future in the Land. He’s been increasingly impatient and even angry with them, and less effective in reaching them.
It is not a stretch to imagine Moses plagued with doubts about his legacy, his authenticity, and his character: “What have I really achieved? Will the people be able to sustain the vision without me? Has my service been true and my motivation pure, or have I used my spiritual gifts for my own gain? What does my anger and frustration with the people say of me? Have I loved the Israelites enough and genuinely served them?” In short: “Am I a true prophet and servant of God, following in Abraham’s footsteps, or merely an unworthy parody?”
One need not be a student of Freud to connect such doubts to a dream about a “heathen” prophet, who
- sees the Israelites only from afar, and whose name (Balaam) suggests belo am—“one without a people” (see BT Sanhedrin 105a);
- is told by God to go forward and is then stymied by impassable roadblocks;
- is revealed as a buffoon when he is bested by a talking donkey; and
- repeatedly offers words which fail to “take.”
Perhaps most challengingly, the dream may reflect uncomfortable questions and feelings about God. Recently, Moses has twice tried to follow God’s instructions, but to disastrous effect: sending spies to the Land (Num. 13-14), and taking a rod to draw water from a rock (Num. 20:6–12). Both incidents resulted in divine wrath, and a decree forbidding first the people, and then Moses himself, to enter the Land. So here, God seems inconsistent in dealing with Balaam, telling him to go forward, then being angry when he does.
Or perhaps Moses identifies even more closely with the donkey, a mute creature made to speak by God, whose complaint of being mistreated reads perfectly as a fantasy dialogue between Moses and God after Moses has struck the rock:
|Donkey: “Why have you beaten me?”
Balaam: “Because you mocked me. Would that I had a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.”
Donkey: “Am I not your donkey that you have ridden forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you?” (Num. 22:28–30)
|Moses: “Why have you beaten me?”
God: “Because you failed to have faith in Me, and to sanctify Me publicly, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the Land.” (Num. 20:12)
Moses: “Am I not Your servant that You have used forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to You?”
In other words, if the story of Balaam and Balak is actually Moses’s dream, it is a dream emerging from a crisis of faith: faith in himself, in the people, in God and God’s ways, and in the ability of human beings to connect, understand, and serve. It emerges from a fundamental anxiety: Not am I blessed or cursed, but am I bringing blessing or curse? Are my life and effort for the good? And reading it thus not only explains the bizarreness of the story, but opens important teachings for us.
First, by revealing the full humanity of Moses, with all of his doubts, fears, mixed motives, and anxieties, the Torah simultaneously offers comfort and conveys responsibility. We need not judge ourselves harshly for our own self-doubts and anxieties, but neither can we use them to excuse a failure to move forward. Such concerns and anxieties don’t disqualify us from leadership or service. On the contrary, self-doubt and introspection are hallmarks of authentic service; we should worry, instead, if we ourselves (or our putative leaders) lack such doubts.
Second, our parashah is no longer a story about a wicked man whose evil designs are thwarted by an interventionist God. Instead, it portrays righteousness as the courage to struggle with one’s dark side, to face one’s fears and doubts. If it is true that every character in a dream represents the dreamer, then God here is not a supernatural being but an aspect of Moses himself—the divine spark in him, able to illuminate his own inner challenges and impurities and to transform them.
This is one of these “I don’t see what Arama is getting at” posts.
After the king of Moab asks him to come over and curse Israel, Balaam tells some Moabite visitors to stay overnight while he waits for God to speak to him (Num. 22:19).
Arama writes: “Our sages teach that the difference between the real prophet and the charlatan, the pretender lies in the former’s ability to communicate the word of God at any time, whereas the pretender must wait for certain horoscopic constellations to appear in the correct correlation to each other. The ability of Balaam to respond immediately, would indicate that his response was genuine, the word of God. As soon as Balaam asked the messengers to stay overnight till he could consult God, [some of them]*realized that the undertaking did not meet with God’s approval.”
Here’s the problem: let us assume that the Talmudic sages knew that a real prophet doesn’t have to wait overnight for God’s word. Even if this is so, there is no reason why pagans who lived 1700 years before the Talmud knew this, since presumably (a) time travel did not exist and (b) pagans generally are not familiar with Jewish texts.
*Or more precisely, some of them. Because the Torah mentions that Balaam went with Moabite dignarities (22:21), Arama infers that their Midianite allies decided that Balaam was a charlatan and bailed out.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gets in big trouble. God tells him to speak to a rock to get water, and he yells at it. God tells him he isn’t going into the Promised Land.*
Arama reasons as follows: people were complaining against Moses and Aaron, and God wanted the Jews to realize that water came from God and that God would save them.
Because this was not the first time a miracle was necessary to establish that God would give the Jews water (see Exodus 17) God wanted a new demonstration that went beyond the first. In the Exodus miracle, Moses strikes a rock to provide water. This time, it “was necessary to show that Moses did not even touch the rock at all, to implant the conviction in the people’s mind that God alone had provided the water.” Thus, God wanted to show that even inert rocks respond to God’s word, and that Moses was a true prophet. Had Moses in fact addressed the rock and gotten water as a result, people would have been very impressed. Instead, Moses and Aaron hit the rock, thus nullifying the point of the demonstration and making people “even more prepared to credit the production of water to Moses rather than to God.” Moses just seemed like a “water diviner” who achieves success after a number of attempts.
Thus, Moses and Aaron could have proved God’s power and instead proved nothing.
*I’m oversimplifying a bit, since some commentators suggest that there are other reasons Moses does not enter the land. But Arama thinks its because he spoke to the rock instead of hitting it, so let’s just assume that for the purposes of this post.
After I got into an argument on Shabbos with an idiot who called Obama a Muslim, it occurred to me that the Left and the Right are both demented in their more extreme forms- but in very different ways.
The right wing in this country has become very successful in creating a media that tells them exactly what they want to hear. So when you see a claim that is highly at variance with factual reality (e.g. “the Obama is a Muslim” thing, birtherism) it usually comes from the Right. Because right-wingers have little respect for any factual reality that they didn’t create themselves.
Also, right-wingers have more of a fuhrer complex. My (wholly subjective) sense is that they were far more nutty about defending their Lord and Savior George W. Bush when he was President than leftists are about Obama (who, as anyone who actually READS Left media will notice, gets plenty of fire from the Left).
On the other hand, leftists, in my view, often just have bad ideas. The idea, for example, that Islam is morally equivalent to other religions is not an idea I find particularly persuasive. The idea that defending your country against foreign attack (as Israel has done against Hamastan, etc) is a war crime is also an idea I don’t much cotton to. The Left is less dishonest, but their values are not mine.
George Lakoff, a leftish linguist, has an interesting post on the rise of Trump. But before he mentions Trump, he writes:
The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).
What do social issues and the politics have to do with the family? We are first governed in our families, and so we grow up understanding governing institutions in terms of the governing systems of families.
In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right) and not just do what feels good. Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong, and able to prosper in the external world. What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility not social responsibility. What you become is only up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.
It seems to me that the Nurturant Parent (“NP”) model of politics really does work sometimes- but not all the time. There are lots of Strict Father (“SF”) cultures out there- and they are really good at producing lots of children who will, under the open borders policies favored by NP liberals, take over your country. So it seems to me that the NP model is self-defeating, because an NP society can’t reproduce itself and can’t defend itself against SF cultures.
On the other hand, the most extreme Strict Father cultures (e.g. ISIS, Nazi Germany) can be pretty unpleasant places to live.
All of which is a long way of saying that nature’s God (or as an atheist would call it, evolution) favors a balance of NP and SF. The Torah exemplifies this: the same Torah that calls again and again and again and again for supporting the poor among you (the NP side of the Torah) also calls for the odd bit of SF genocide against enemy nations. We need not literally commit genocide against Amalek, any more than we need to redistribute land every 50 years. But we need to keep the values behind both rules in our heads.
I was in a shul in my hometown, and the rabbi talked about (among other things) shielding your eyes and ears (he wasn’t clear about what). He said that one way of getting something out of the summer was to avoid paying attention to something once a day. At the time I didn’t know what to do with his thought.
But by the end of Shabbos I did. I was visiting someone I knew, and she and a friend (I think a son-in-law) got into politics. First, she started bemoaning recent murders of Jews by terrorists in Israel, and then she and her friend started agreeing about how terrible Arabs were, and then they got into politics and started Obama-bashing, and at some point I got into an argument. (I didn’t vote for him, but when someone starts calling him a Muslim I think that’s a bit out of control).
So here’s my thought: if anyone mentions the words “Arab”, “terrorist” or “Obama” on Shabbos, I just want to tune it out. These are matters that at best make Shabbos depressing, and at worst lead to arguments.
Last shabbos I dreamt that it was Rosh Hashanah and I had invited a former rabbi of mine* to lunch. When I got home, I noticed plenty of canned mackerel (one of my daily staples) but no meat** or wine (which I would normally have on a Yom Tov). So I was freaking out. Then the apartment turned into a crowded bar, at which point it became hard to host lunch even leaving aside the absence of provisions. Before I completely lost my marbles, I woke up and the dream ended.
*I realize he’s still a rabbi, but he was fired from my congregation, so he is no longer a congregational rabbi.
**I don’t always eat meat on shabbos/yom tov but yeshivish people like this rabbi do. At any rate I always have wine.
In this week’s portion, Korah and various accomplices challenge Moses’s leadership, and Moses challenges them to a sacrifice-off: Korah’s supporters would burn incense in front of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 16:17) and God’s reaction would determine the merit of their complaints. A fire from God consumes them (whatever that means) 16:35)
After that, God tells Moses to take the incense-burning tools of Korah’s supporters and to make them an overlay for the Tent altar. Why should something used in a mistaken cause be treated as holy?
Arama explains that this would remind Israel of the failure of the rebellion, which in turn would “demonstrate that only priests could offer incense without penalty.” He writes that this policy illustrates a broader point: “nothing is as beloved as the weapon once owned by a defeated enemy, which now reminds the victor of his triumph.”
Which in turn reminds me of one of my most cherished memories of my father, who was born in Berlin, hid there during WW 2, and did not move to the US until 1949. In the late 1990s (when I lived in Buffalo) he and my mother visited Toronto. We met there, and I noticed that Triumph of the Will was playing. I asked my father if he was interested in seeing it, and somewhat to my surprise he was. (He was 12 when it was made). The closing theme to the movie was the Horst Wessel song, the Nazi national anthem; he hummed along like it was perfectly normal to do so. At the time I didn’t really think about whether this made sense. But after reading Arama I understand- that song was, so to speak, the enemy’s weapon. Humming it must have reminded by father of his triumph in surviving.
Similarly, this idea might explain why people sometimes like to use ethnic slurs directed against them (e.g. black entertainers using a certain word beginning with N).
This week’s Torah portion contains the mitzvot of tzitzit. Arama concentrates on the fact that they originally contained a blue thread, pointing out that “Just as blue is a color halfway between the all absorbing black and the all reflecting white, so Torah is an intermediary between us and God.” Also,. this “teaches us to refrain from extremism in the application of all human characteristics.”
Which reminds me of one form of extreme behavior in the last two portions: the Jews’ constant complaining, which (after some spies discuss the land of Israel) reaches the extreme level of urging a return to Egypt (Numbers 14:3).
Last weekend, I was in the city that I lived in from 2006-11, and the rabbi discussed the issue of complaining leading to anger. He discussed the anger of today’s voters, and the anger of the Jews, and suggested that both were counterproductive. Yes, there are problems- but coping with the Caananites’ strength really is not as bad as being slaves in Egypt, and today’s problems are less serious than the Great Depression or the crime explosion of the 1970s.
In this week’s Torah portion, God turns 70 elders into prophets (Numb. 11:17). Moses responds by expressing the wish that prophecy was universal (11:29).
Arama writes: “From here we learn the source of the dictum in the Talmud that though most other things are the subject of envy and jealousy, a father or teacher is not jealous of his respective sons or pupils.”
I wish my pupils were good enough for me to test this proposition!