Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balak: Donkey Knows Best

This Sunday morning, we're doing our annual Blessing of the Pets ceremony (10am in the parking lot, if you're around!). It's pretty much exactly what you're imagining, except I won't be putting my hands on the heads of each furry friend and giving them a personal blessing. Other than that, it should be a lot of fun.

So why are we doing it this weekend? You might have thought a more fitting weekend would be Shabbat Bereishit, where we read the story of Creation, because that's when all the animals came into existence. Or perhaps the Torah portion of Noah, where the innocent animals are spared the punishment of all the corrupted humans. So why now? Why Parashat Balak? This week's Torah portion is basically one cohesive story. An evil king, Balak, sends for a powerful prophet/sorcerer/wizard, named Bilaam, to come and curse the Israelites. He decides to go, but God warns him that he'll only be able to say what God wants him to say (and it probably won't be much of an anti-Israelite curse...).

One of the most famous characters in the story is Bilaam's donkey.

Much like a current movie star, the donkey can talk, and he has also got quite a bit of attitude! As they are traveling, an angel of God blocks their way while wielding a mighty sword. The donkey sees the angel, but Bilaam does not (which is pretty embarrassing for someone who's supposed to be a powerful Seer...). Bilaam starts beating the donkey for refusing to walk, and eventually the donkey tells him off for his offenses. Bilaam finally realizes that only God is truly in charge, and he himself cannot see, speak, or do anything contrary to God's Will.

This short vignette tells us everything we need to know about our beloved pets. They're loyal (as donkey reminds Shrek, er... I mean, Bilaam), they continue to stick up for us even when we take them for granted, and they're always there to carry us along through challenging times.

Some people think pets are unnecessary luxuries (or nuisances) in our lives, but really they help us to see the beauty in the world. They open our eyes to the simplicity of life, and help us learn mercy, compassion, and friendship. Even as Bilaam's donkey was getting abused, he still refused to let Bilaam be harmed by the angel. He could have bucked him and let him lose his head, but he remained loyal.

Bilaam takes his donkey for granted, without realizing that the animal was saving his life. I

wonder if we sometimes remain oblivious to the same fact in our lives. I'm glad we'll be taking a day to acknowledge how much joy, warmth, silliness, and companionship our pets are giving us. The rest of the time we might not appreciate how great they are. Unlike the partners of Bilaam and Shrek, our domestic animals can't tell us what they're feeling, or really say anything at all. So we need to make sure to express our appreciation for both of us.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chukat: Striking at Rocks was Never a Good Idea

Right now, all the newspaper headlines talk about oil. The BP scandal continues with no end in sight, and I shudder to think of the long-term damage that will come from this. Just as the oil continues to spread out along the Gulf Coast, this story seems to be seeping into more and more aspects of our lives. I initially had another plan for this week's blog post, but BP has "inspired" me to take a very different approach to our Torah portion.

Ordinarily, when I read the story of the Israelites crying out for water, and Moses responding in anger and desperation by hitting a rock, my focus is on the emotions that are playing out. I see a people fed up with wandering, and disappointed in their leader. I see a man who's sister, Miriam, had just died, and who was harassed by whining people day in and day out. Moses was pushed to the brink, and he lost his cool. Instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it with his staff. And even though water DID begin to flow, his own fate was sealed, and he would never be allowed to enter the Holy Land.

I never saw it in this story before, but there is a definite message hidden in the text about how we mistreat our planet, and our over-dependence on the earth's natural resources. Moses represents all of us, striking at nature rather than coexisting with it. Many people survive in the desert, and have for millenia. Why are the Israelites unable to fend for themselves? Why must they constantly turn to Moses and Aaron, never once trying to become self-sufficient or to better understand the desert around them? They are completely dependent on their leaders, and on a rapidly diminishing resource: miracles.

I look at this story, and I wonder why God still let water flow from the rock, even after Moses' egregious error. And BP has given me the answer. Nature will not object when we mistreat it... at least not right away. We can abuse our earth and get away with it for a bit. Drilling endlessly offshore will indeed give us oil, but at what price? Moses learned his lesson the hard way, and I fear that we are all traveling down that same path.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Korach: Worth Digging For

I don't know if you've noticed it by now, but the Torah is a pretty complicated book. It may do a lot of things, but it does NOT give you clear-cut scenarios with uncomplicated good guys and thoroughly evil bad guys. It forces us to ask questions, rethink stereotypes, and above all, consider the role of human beings in the creation, and maintenance, of the world. What are we here to do? How much CAN we do? And what does God expect of us? To make matters worse, none of the answers to these questions are spelled out explicitly in the verses of the Torah scroll; we have to dig deeper and find them for ourselves.

In this week's reading, we are taught a central lesson of human existence: communication. We

learn about how people engage with one another, and how to deal with conflict. But even this lesson isn't learned in a straight-forward manner; you have to delve into the text of our Torah portion. This week Moses faces a targeted rebellion, spearheaded by his cousin, Korach, who challenges Moses' right to lead the people. Surprisingly, God is more upset about the offense than Moses, and God threatens to wipe out all the dissenters. Moses and Aaron intercede on their behalf, but ultimately God follows through with the plan, and some of the rebels are consumed in fire while others are swallowed up by the earth (Yikes!).

Now here's what I find particularly fascinating. The very next chapter in the Bible tells us of a new rebellion. Unbelievable! Why do the people continue to defy God, and where do they get the chutzpah to keep challenging Moses as their

leader, especially since HE is the (only) one trying to convince God to spare them!?!? More importantly, I think this story teaches us an essential lesson about life; one that humanity needs to learn more now than ever before. Violence simply is NOT the solution. God annihilated the opposition, sending the people into a screaming panic... yet almost immediately after, they returned with more protests and more attacks.

Time and again we read about leaders of countries quashing rebellions

and oppressing their critics, yet the only thing it leads to is more opposition and more criticism. "We'll hit them so hard they'll think twice before attacking us again!" WRONG! It never works. Ultimately you are bound to lose that war. You cannot oppress people enough to make them ok with it, they will always rise up eventually. Moses tried to convince God that the rebels needed to be persuaded, not killed, but God would not listen. Even God - who can split seas, rain down plagues, and make manna fall from the sky for 40 years - cannot force people to love something they do not. And how exactly did killing them improve the situation??

Moses had the right idea. He advocated communication and empathy, and tried to bring the opposing factions together. Why does this approach seem so rare in the world today? Even when war is necessary, and people are forced to defend themselves, as we see in Israel, that must be a temporary solution. A reluctant, last-resort, highly unfortunate solution. Why? Because it never

solves anything. A demonstration of power does not really strike fear into the hearts of one's enemies. They are momentarily afraid... and then they commit themselves to becoming stronger, more lethal, and more numerous, so they can return and attack you yet again. And that cycle can only end in death.

No, there must be another way. Just as we must delve deep into the Torah to find answers, we
must explore even deeper into ourselves to find the essential answers to human existence. Violence is the easy answer; the primordial, barbaric, uncivilized answer that truly resolves nothing. We are better than that. Moses knew it, and God is constantly challenging us to discover this for ourselves. There's no time to waste, let us together start looking for better answers right now.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sh'lach Lecha: A Biblical Perspective on Flotillas

Earlier this week, I had a very interesting discussion with a friend about the connections between this week's Torah portion and the terrible flotilla-incident involving Israeli soldiers and activists on their way to Gaza. At first glance, it's hard to see the relationship between the two, but we found a couple of very interesting ones, which also give us a little perspective on this unfortunate situation.

One of the things I've said many times in previous blog posts and in many sermons is that the Torah reminds us there is no right and wrong. In real life, every protagonist has flaws, every antagonist deserves a second look, and every scenario can be seen from multiple sides and has many complicated layers. That is true both for this week's Torah reading and the flotilla-incident.

In this week's reading, Moses sends 12 spies in to the land of Canaan to scout it out, and report back on whether the land can be taken or not. Ten of them come back with a negative report, saying, "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size... and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Num. 13:32-33). Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say that they can conquer the land. Disheartened by the report of the 10 spies, the people rebel against Moses and Aaron, threatening to kill them. God intercedes, and as punishment for their lack of faith, the people are forced to remain in the desert for 40 years before they can enter the land.

The first similarity we see is the value of intelligence. The Israelites knew that they needed spies to investigate the land first, before they could attempt to attack it. Information had to be gathered, and all angles considered. Last week, much of the flotilla-disaster might have been averted if the Israeli soldiers had been more prepared for the resistance they faced. Yes, they did train for these "types" of situations, but somehow they were still caught off guard and panic ensued. One officer speaking to the newspaper Ha'aretz told reporters, "I still wake up at 3 A.M. and wonder how the hell we did not know more." With information comes tremendous power. The ten spies were able to incite an entire people into a state of panic, and last week's confrontation became an international disaster.

Yet at the same time, most Jews watch the news reports about the flotilla unfold and are shocked at how one-sided they are. They speak of the Israeli "massacre," "bloodbath," "mission of madness," and "piracy." When I read the facts about the incident - or at least try to gather information and piece together what seem like facts - I do not see that at all. I once again see Israel being judged infinitely harsher than any other nation, and I ask myself, "What other country would let these ships sail peacefully into their harbor under these circumstances?" In this week's Torah portion, twelve spies enter Canaan to investigate it, and after spending 40 days together, they still come out with two, diametrically opposed reports. They look at the same information and paint two completely different pictures. And neither side can really convince the other to see it their way, which is indeed part of our predicament today.

There are a couple of essential lessons we can take from these comparisons; in particular the value of gathering information, and the recognition that two sides can look at the same situation and see two completely different things. In the end, however, we are left with no easy answers to the terrible state that last week's incident has left us in. I imagine that Moses and the Israelites often felt caught between a rock and a hard place; unable to go backwards yet unwilling to move forward. Sometimes we feel a similar sense of despair. But it is precisely at these difficult moments that we must remain strong. We have to band together and fight off the vicious lies that are spread about Israel. At the same time, we cannot ignore the mistakes that Israel makes, for when we try to paint a one-sided picture, we discredit ourselves and forfeit our own integrity.

Sometimes it truly seems like we are caught in the wilderness, surrounded by enemies and feeling despair start to creep in. The Israelites overcame adversity, and persevered their time in the desert. It took them years to realize it, but eventually they learned that neither going backwards nor standing still are viable options. We must do the same.