Parashat Balak

I leave you for this Shabbat with a great d’var Torah written by a guy I’ve never met :)  Michael Greenberg is an elementary school teacher in Staten Island, NY, and a member of Congregation Knesseth Israel in Bound Brook, NJ.  Not to be cliche, but we met on Facebook.  We have a mutual friend, the Notorious R.A.V.

I really liked Michael’s take on privacy & modesty (especially in the age of 140-character TMI), and his suggestion that we try to see the “malachim” – angels – around us.  Take it away, Michael:

D’var Torah – Parsha Balak – July 6, 2012

This week, on the parsha clock,
it’s time for Balaam and Balak.
The tale is quite funky –
God speaks through a donkey,
which comes as a bit of a shock.

Balak, he tried to suppress
the power that Israel possess
He hired Balaam
To curse them and run
But instead of a curse they got blessed.

Through the rhyme of a limerick, written by Rabbi Joe Black, we learn the essence of this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Balak – from Sefer Bamidbar – or as more commonly known, the Book of Numbers.   In this parsha, that on first glance might seemingly come from a Harry Potter novel, featuring such characters as a King,  a sorcerer, curses and blessings, angels and talking donkeys (OK, that one might be more Shrek than Harry Potter), we learn the origin and history of one of the most familiar prayers in our liturgy.

Additionally, for those of us who have a tantalizing temptation to taste tidy tidbits of Torah trivia, this is one of only two parshiyot in the Torah named for non-Israelites (the other being Parsha Yitro), secondly, almost the entire narrative takes place OUTSIDE the Israelite camp, the first time since the Exodus from Egypt and finally, one of only two instances in the Torah which feature talking animals of course the snake, from the Adam and Eve story being the other.

The parsha begins with the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  Then, Moses and the rest of the Israelites must fight against the Edomites, Canaanites, Emorites and Amorites on their journey to the Promised Land.   A worried Balak, the Moabite King, sends messengers to Balaam, a sorcerer, to ask for help in defeating the Hebrews by placing a curse on them.  Balaam informs the messengers that he will need to “sleep on it” so that he may speak to G-d, and then would let the messengers know if he is able to pronounce the curses upon the Israelites. During the night, G-d informs Balaam that he shall not curse the Hebrew people for they are blessed and that he is not permitted to go with the messengers.  In the immortal words of the cartoon character Dick Dastardly, “Curses, foiled again!”  The initial messengers leave and more powerful messengers come to plead with Balaam to join with them in cursing the Hebrews, at which time G-d reluctantly allows Balaam to go; but with the words “You may go but do only what I say to do.”

G-d was angry with Balaam for going, which is another story entirely since G-d gave permission, and sent an angel to block his path. Balaam’s donkey saw the angel and stopped.  Balaam, not seeing the angel, struck the donkey for not moving.  This occurred three separate times.  The donkey then spoke to Balaam, questioning why he was being hit; hadn’t he always served his master faithfully? Shrek, err, Balaam, doesn’t say “Oh wow, a talking donkey” but instead has a nice conversation about how frustrated he is that the donkey won’t move.  G-d then “opens Balaam’s eyes” and Balaam, now seeing the angel, realized that he had sinned and offered to go back. But the angel commanded him to go on, warning him again only to say that which was permitted and certainly not to curse the Israelites.

Balaam meets with Balak and while with the King, Balaam warned him that he would have to say whatever G-d told him to say. Balak was disappointed, after hearing that Balaam, not only didn’t curse the Israelites, but according to the commentary Bamidbar Raba, “The Lord put a word into the mouth of Balaam” that changed the curse into a blessing.   Balak moved Balaam to three different positions, each time viewing the camp differently, and each time, Balaam spoke a blessing rather than a curse.

Commentators through the centuries have had many explanations for what caused this change.  Some commentators suggest that this blessing wasn’t done for the benefit of the Israelites, but rather to teach Balaam a lesson – that he wasn’t, you’ll pardon the Seinfeld reference, “The Master of His Domain.”   The great commentator Abravanel, interestingly points out a case of psychological warfare.  If Balaam had indeed cursed the Israelites, the enemy nations would have mustered up enough courage to wage war with them on the strength of his curses.  Instead, hearing how G-d forced Balaam to bless the Israelites, the enemies then realize who the true master is and lose the desire to fight G-d’s people.

The blessing, given by Balaam, made its way from the Torah to our siddur and comprises the first line of the Ma Tovu prayer.  “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, translated as How Good are Your Tents, Jacob, Your Dwelling Places, Israel.”

So what exactly is the meaning of the blessing?  Why are Jacob’s tents and Israel’s dwelling places good?  Rashi explains that the tents of the Jewish people are “goodly” (not my use of grammar, mind you) because they are carefully arranged so that no one can see into his neighbor’s dwelling, affording each neighbor a degree of privacy.  In the era of Reality TV and Social Media, where privacy is almost nonexistent, this is an extremely important lesson we must take to heart.

Through “status updates,” “instant pictures,” and “tweets,” I often learn more about my neighbors, friends and colleagues than I ever cared to know.  It is one thing to read a message that friends and family members are safe from the unfortunate wildfires that have engulfed many western communities, it is another thing entirely to know exactly how one felt after drinking six margaritas (and even worse to see it on Pictagram or The Jersey Shore).  One new website is even taking embarrassing and potentially incriminating status updates from Facebook users who don’t use the site’s privacy settings and posting them for the whole world to see.

In the Book of Proverbs we learn that “A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence.”  Expanded upon by Talmudists in Tractate Yoma, they further state that one should not disclose the details of even a casual conversation without explicit permission.

There is a middah or value in Judaism known as tzniut.  Loosely defined, tzniut is keeping private what should remain private as well as exhibiting modesty.   Why is privacy and modesty such an essential component of Jewish belief and behavior?  The explanation is that something holy is also kept hidden.  A Torah is kept wrapped, dressed and adored in coverings behind a curtain and/or other barriers.  In the days of the holy temple, one could not always go there, and even the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, could only enter the inner sanctuary – the Holy of Holys – on Yom Kippur – and then, only with proper preparations.

Rabbi Asher Meir notes there is a difference between privacy and modesty.  Privacy is something a person wishes to remain hidden.  Modesty is what normally ought to remain hidden.   In order to develop a healthy personality, we need a clear demarcation between ourselves and others; we need to know that there are some things that belong only to ourselves, secrets between the individual and the Creator.

Most people associate tzniut or modesty through modesty in dress; many of us are familiar with the dress of the more traditional members of the Jewish community – hair coverings, long skirts and blouses for women; as well as long shirts, fur hats and jackets for men, even with the heat index rising close to 100 degrees.  Some are also familiar with the concept of Negiah – where an observant man or woman will not allow themselves to be touched in any way by a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse or immediate family member.  Men and women alike are encouraged to avoid clothing that is revealing, provocative, or flaunts the anatomy.

The identical principle applies to one’s character; that which has unfortunately sometimes taken a back seat to “dress.”  Jewish tradition discourages being too open with private information. Our sages state, for instance, that a person should not flaunt his achievements or abilities; conversely, someone who has a shortcoming should be discreet about that, too.   Modesty means avoiding behavior that screams “look at me” or distracts from the people around you.

In fact, there is another, less well known quote by Balaam that appears toward the end of the parsha – “Don’t try and beat them in battle or with words; bring them down with immorality, then they will fall apart and their G-d will not save them”.   Unfortunately this turns out also to be true as G-d sent a terrible plague that killed 24,000 people after the Moabites send some of their less upstanding citizens to infiltrate the Israelis camp and engage in immoral acts with the Hebrews.

What we can take away from this, is that instead of looking at or participating in the immodesty around us, and as we sung earlier in “Shalom Aleichem,” greet the “malachim” – the messengers of G-d – that are surrounding us and more importantly – greet them with a dose of tzniut, privacy and humility – rather than ignore them or fail to see them.

At the risk of having my poetic license revoked, please allow me to sum up this parsha with a haiku, courtesy of the blog “The Torah in Haiku”

G-d sent an angel
But Balaam could not see it
though his donkey could

Will you be aware
when G-d’s messenger appears
or blind like Balaam?

Shabbat Shalom.

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