Sunday, July 5, 2015

Balaam and the Power of Words

Yesterday was July 4th, the birthday of the United States of America. It was also Shabbat and on this particular Shabbat the Torah portion read was Balak (which is better known as the story of Balaam. It was the portion I read for my bar mitzvah land I like to re-visit it because it has many lessons. Yesterday I delivered the dvar Torah (the Torah lesson) at my synagogue, and this is what I said:

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were - no they weren’t at a bar - they were having coffee and talking shop. They were discussing their failing, their weaknesses. The minister admitted that he chased women. The priest admitted he liked to drink. They turned to the last member of the trio, “And you Rabbi, what is your great weakness?”
The Rabbi answered, “Sometimes I get an unbearable urge to gossip.”
I LOVE rabbi, priest, minister jokes. But they are best when they are true and this joke has the virtue of having truth to it. Evil speech, loshon hora, is a great sin in Judaism and it is because we take words so seriously. We are the people of the Book and a book is just a big pile of words.

Consider in how many cultures adulthood is established by going on a hunt, or a quest, or some other physical task? In Judaism the rite of passage is proving, in public, that you can read. We are an outlier, but it seems to work. We are still here 5000 years later, but I haven’t run into any Hittites lately.

This is on my mind a bit since we just read the parsha Balak and it was my bar mitzvah portion sometime last century. One of the great themes of parsha Balak is about words and language. Balak is a king in Moab. He sees the Israelites coming and knows he cannot resist them (these aren’t the  frightened slaves fleeing Egypt, this a new generation, hardened and prepared to do battle.) So Balak hires Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam asks for Hashem’s permission. Hashem tells Balaam not to do it, but Balaam keeps asking and finally Hashem tells him he can go. On the way to the mountain where Balaam will make the sacrifices and deliver his curse, an angel appears. Balaam is so intent on doing delivering this curse that he doesn’t notice the angel. However, his donkey does. When the donkey refuses to go forward Balaam begins beating it. The donkey, then miraculously, is given the power of speech and rebukes Balaam. Finally Balaam makes it to the mountaintop and where, instead of a curse, Hashem places a blessing on his lips.

Clearly this is a story where the power of words and language is a theme. But one thing bugged me, who cares about Balaam’s curse. Why did it matter? Later scholars said Balaam was a sorcerer so his words had real power. But we are modern people, do we really believe this?

Then I had an epiphany.

Spoken words can make you laugh, or cry. They can provide comfort, they can change your life.

We are modern people. We live in an age where we know our bodies are made of chemicals and our thoughts and feelings really just come down to chemical reactions - complex and remarkable though they may be. We know we can take pills, cause these chemical reactions, and change our mood.

Now consider, an organ in our throat can vibrate air molecules which then vibrate small organ inside someone’s ear and are then turned into these complex chemical reactions that can have these incredible effects that can cause these chemical reactions.

Pic is from LOTR, but it's sort of how I imagine Balaam

What’s more, we’ve gone even a step farther. We can now transmit these things via little marks on wood pulp. Earlier in the service we read the Declaration of Independence. A bunch of marks on a paper established a great nation. Behind us sits the Torah, a bunch of marks on a parchment has been the spiritual sustenance, that has held us together, for thousands of years.

We’ve taken the magic to a whole new level, we can now transmit these vibrations and marks instantaneously and share thoughts and ideas around the world.

We are all magicians of the highest order. We are all going to Hogwarts! The only question is Hufflepuff of Slytherin.

Will we use our powers for good, or evil? Because, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a recent opinion citing that noted legal scholar, Spiderman, reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The Torah serves as a framework to think about this crucial question. It does not always provide clear or direct answers. But it gives us ways to think about it, not only with commandments but with stories. Balaam was a case of man gifted with great power who chose to use it for evil, despite being warned.

As it happens, today’s Haftorah, from the Book of Micah, eloquently addresses this question ending, with those inspiring words:
He has told you o man what is goodAnd what the Lord wants of youTo do justice, love mercyAnd walk humbly with your G-d.
Talk about the power of words.

On the whole humility is a virtue. But occasionally, it is good to step back from it and consider the awesome powers we all possess.

And that’s the final lesson of this weeks Torah portion, the story of Balaam.

Sometimes, to see the obvious, you need a good kick from your ass.

Coda: My secular and religious lives bump into one another and are intertwined in odd ways. Yesterday was a Shabbat and July 4th, two celebrations in one. Two celebrations of freedom - personal and political. Today, as I write this, it is the Fast of Tammuz (commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem), which  begins a three week period of morning which ends on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, remembering the destruction of the Temple. It is said that Jersualem ultimately fell due to evil speech.

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