Parshat Balak Drash – July 8, 2017 – Miryam Kabakov

“Parshat Balak Drash” by Miryam Kabakov

D’var Torah for 7/8/17

This week’s parsha, parshat Balak, is a study in ambivalence, the holding of more than one truth, in one place, at one time.

Because I, too, have been accused by close friends of being a study in ambivalence, this parsha spoke to me. What I see in this parsha is not only a lot of ambivalence, but also something else I think is closely related: a lot of extremes, a lot of black-and- white thinking. The extremes, in fact, are a powerful mechanism that can set ambivalence in motion, because when we think in terms of two mutually opposing options, we become paralyzed. We fear that there is one right answer. Making a decision is difficult because any decision feels it must be either all good or all evil. Let’s take a look at what seems to be happening in the parsha and how this ping-ponging back and forth between extremes plays itself out. Balak, the son of Tzippor, King of Moab, views the Israelites as too great in number to defeat. He says, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” Thinking that the Israelites are all that, Balak sets out to hire a reputable sorcerer, Bilaam, to curse Israel, so he will be able to drive them out of the land. Bilaam is willing to take on this job, but wants to consult with G-d first.

G-d tells Bilaam, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed… Go with them, but say what I tell you to say.”

When the time comes for Bilaam to try to curse Israel, he warns Balak: “I can utter only the word that G-d puts into my mouth.” He concentrates hard on trying to get out the words that Balak, his human boss, wants him to say. But the words coming out of his mouth are what the Big Boss wants him to say, which are the opposite.

Who here has ever had a thought and, as you start to speak, you hear the words coming out of your mouth and they express the opposite of what you are thinking?

This is what happens to Bilaam. The curse comes out as a blessing.

Bilaam, move to another spot, Balak tells him, maybe you’ll have better cell phone reception there! So he does, and again, no go. Blessings instead of curses come out. Bilaam tries a third time and still, he cannot get out Balak’s words.

It’s not only the humans in this parsha who are ambivalent; G-d is too. No sooner does G-d tell Bilaam to go with Balak’s messengers than the text says “Vayichar af elohim”. G-d is incensed that he does go. G-d is mad at Bilaam for doing the exact thing G-d told him to do!

And let’s look at the words G-d puts into Bilaam’s mouth, which we have come to think of as blessings. There, too, it seems G-d is living in a polarized world, with no grey zone. The brachot, the blessings that G-d puts in Bilaam’s mouth, paint a very rosy picture. So rosy, they are unrealistic:

לֹֽא־הִבִּ֥יט אָ֙וֶן֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־רָאָ֥ה עָמָ֖ל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
(No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel.)

Really? Since when has no harm ever been in sight for Jacob? I mean, this is the Jewish people, right? And at the end of the parsha, G-d brings a plague that wipes out a portion of the Israelite tribe.

And two more times, the blessing goes awry in the very same parsha as the words of blessing are spoken! Bilaam says;

כִּ֤י לֹא־נַ֙חַשׁ֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־קֶ֖סֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
(Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, No divining in Israel)

But, by the end of the parsha, there is divining in Israel. The people do become idolators through their connections with the Midianites.

And before the end of the parsha, G-d is proven wrong once again by Israel’s actions. Bilaam proclaims: Mah tovu ohalecha yaakov; How goodly are your tents, Jacob. And yet at the end of the parsha, the tent is not looking so good: a Israelite man is found with a Midianite woman in said Ohel, and are speared to death for their transgression of being together.

The brachot of Israel are extreme. And the curses are also extreme. By attempting to counteract Balak’s curses, G-d goes too far in the other direction in blessing them. Bilaam is caught in what feels like one of those polarizing conversations – where you start to say things you don’t really believe; you are only saying them to counteract the other person’s polarizing words…. Bilaam, caught in the middle, cannot mesh the black and the white, the good and the evil.

In fact, don’t both the blessings and the curses have elements of truth in them? Or, to quote the Netflix show, My Crazy ex-Girlfriend, isn’t the “situation a little more nuanced than that”? Aren’t there any stam b’nei yisrael, Run of the mill Joes who are neither all evil nor all good?

Thinking in extremes is costly. These brachot that are so unambiguously good, do they give us something to strive for, or set us up for failure?

Rabbi Abba bar Kahane says: all of Bilaam’s blessings eventually turned into curses when the Jewish people did not live up to the idealistic version of them that Bilam had painted. In this “not seeing”, it was inevitable that Israel would fall from grace.

Balak does not see Israel for who they are. And G-d does not see Israel for who they are.

Israel is not all good or all bad, they are not only “blessed” nor are they only “cursed”.

And neither of those extremes can hold up to the complexity of who we are as a people or who any of us is as individuals.

An infant’s ability to eventually synthesize the image of the good parent, the one who feeds them, takes care of them, is patient and loving with them, with the evil parent, the one who ignores their needs, is impatient and gets angry easily, is a necessary developmental stage for any psychologically healthy adult.

And yet…How many of us get caught in our own polarized thinking? How does that paralyze us? And how do we set ourselves up for failure by thinking in extremes, and by fulfilling our own prophecies?

In “Wonder Woman,” — which I’ve already seen twice — the goddess Diana comes to understand that humans are complex. Yes they can be deceitful, unkind, and violent, but they also have the capacity for love, caring, and self-sacrifice. Just for that, she believes, they are worth keeping around. Unlike her brother Aries, who only sees their evil and thus the need for their destruction. It is this recognition of humans’ intrinsic moral complexity — and, of course, her ability to jump hundreds of feet in the air — that makes her a superhero.

The ability to hold both the blessings and the curse, the good and the bad, in one frame is our challenge. Things are sometimes black and white, good or evil. But most of the time they are not. And even in the moments of extremes, we need to create the equivalent of the phantom center in music, when sound comes at either our left or right ear but we hear it as if it’s coming to our center.

Bilaam is not recognized by our sages as a legitimate prophet. In my reading, that’s not because he’s a foreigner, but for a different reason. It’s that he is not able to transmit the word of G-d in his own voice. He gets caught in the middle, meaning to say one thing and speaking another, because he is not using his own voice or articulating a more nuanced vision. He can only speak about a polarized reality. A true prophet takes G-d’s word, interprets G-ds word, and makes it useful by transmitting it to people, and by fusing G-d’s word with the prophet’s own personality. Bilaam is not a prophet because he is too much of an empty vessel.

Moreover, a true prophet speaks in a way that tells people they can make a difference. Bilaam is passive instead of active, and his pronouncements about the people are just as static. A true prophet says: you can make this right. The current reality is not the only reality. It’s just what’s happening now. You can change it…. which means that agency matters. It’s not that Israel is intrinsically cursed or blessed. A disciplinary process matters, agency matters, what you do matters. True prophets help their audience realize that.

This Shabbat, Mara and I celebrate our connection to the Beth Jacob community. Before we moved, I had never really been to Minnesota. The only thing I knew about Minnesota was that we had stopped there briefly to see the Jolly Green Giant on our drive years earlier from Seattle to New Haven.

Moving is a great opportunity to engage in the sport of extreme worrying. Making the decision to come felt like stepping off of a cliff, and so I engaged in some pretty black and white thinking about our decision. The darkness of the complete unknown, and the image in my mind of a vast expanse of snow-covered prairie.

I remember the first time that I walked into the Beth Jacob sanctuary after three days of house-hunting in Mendota Heights. I said to Mara; Oh look! A walk-in Aron! I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore, so to speak.

The strangeness of this place soon became difference, soon became familiar, and then, finally, became native.

Over time we had to become active players in our destiny, exercising agency, putting together the building blocks of our lives. There was a lot of tweaking and making our rhythm work. And over time the richness and colors and opportunities became more clear. When I was able to access my agency, I discovered that the reality of life, of my life here, was and is more complex. And this is what I am learning and learned from this week’s parsha, that not falling into extremes, and to exercise your own agency, allows us to stay responsive to the beautiful and vibrant reality of the moment.

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