Sunday, June 28, 2015

Parashat Balak 5775 The Road Not Taken

Echoes of Eden

Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Balak 5775
The Road Not Taken

The events recounted in Parashat Balak took place millennia ago, but so many of the elements of the story are all too familiar to the modern reader.

Although the actual conquest of the Land of Israel had not yet begun, there had already been a few military skirmishes between the Israelites and the tribes of Canaan and its environs. Generally, the conflicts centered around free passage through secure travel routes and use of water. Apparently things have not changed much in this part of the world.

The locals,     an ad hoc coalition of erstwhile enemies, band together to wage war against the Jewish People, despite their age-old internecine warring. Motivated by fear of their common enemy, they resolve to mend their fractious ways in order to bar the Israelites return to their ancestral homeland again, a scenario that continues to repeat itself to this very day.

As opposed to the earlier conflicts recorded in the Torah, which were limited battles over access to resources or roads, the conflict in Parashat Balak introduces elements of religion and plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism (even though this term would be coined only thousands of years later, and the perpetrators in this particular episode were themselves Semites). The spokesperson for this coalition of tribes describes the People of Israel as a beast that destroys everything in its way, dehumanizing the Jews while giving voice to the locals fear and dread in a propaganda effort that has been imitated over and over again, from the middle ages through Nazi Germany. Interestingly, this characterization stands in stark contrast to the self-perception voiced by the spies only a few chapters earlier in the text, who reported that when they compared themselves to the inhabitants of the Land, they were like grasshoppers in their own eyes, and assumed that the locals saw them the same way. 

Rather than employing the military tactics that these states surely had at their disposal, they choose to hire a soothsayer to curse the Jews. Apparently they know, or at least sense, that the Jewish people are blessed, and without some sort of major realignment, they will soon return to their homeland. Their strategy is to strip the children of Abraham of their Divine protection.

As the story unfolds, this Divine protection is tested and proven effective: Bilams calling card, the specialty he advertises, is a skill set purloined from the promise God made to Avraham: whomever he blesses will be blessed and whomever he curses will be cursed. In the end, God protects the Jews from the curses of the smooth-tongued, misanthropic seer Bilam, who is humiliated when it becomes clear that not only is he incapable of effectively cursing the Jews but his own donkey sees more then he does, and is apparently more eloquent as well.

When the coalition that hired Bilam finally accepts the failure of their plan, they launch plan b, which proves far more effective: The Jews forfeit their Divine protection, not because of the hate-filled words hissed by some sorcerer, but because of their own debased behavior. The Midianite and Moavite women, who are sent to seduce the Jewish men and entangle them in pagan worship, prove to be a far more formidable enemy than the self-important, self-aggrandizing Bilam.

Unfortunately, these nations never considered the third option, plan c, as it were: Why not try peace? Why not reach out and offer co-existence? Balak and the tribes he represented were well-aware that the Israelites were a blessed nation, that they were protected by a Divine covenant, that they would soon be returning to their ancestral homeland, that God Himself desired this particular course of events. Why not join forces with the Jews? Why not enter an alliance with them, and benefit from the blessings that would surely result from a partnership with Gods chosen people? The power of the Jewish People was clear to them, as was the unique holiness of the Israelite way of life - but they were unwilling to embrace or even respect the holiness or defer to the power this holiness conferred upon the Jews. They chose, instead, to fight it. They were repulsed by the holiness, and the only plan they could conjure up was a plan of attack -- either against the power of the Jewish People or against the holiness that gave them that power -- but not a plan of peace. Once again, history lives.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Audio and Essays Parashat Pinchas

Audio and Essays Parashat Pinchas

New Echoes of Eden Project:

Pinchas - Truth and Peace
Understanding the blessing received by Pinchas, and the tension between truth and peace

Pinchas – Was Pinchas a Kohen?

The Korban Tamid

The strange path of the Levi Shimon partnership;_Levi_and_Shimon_Redux

Pinchas is Eliyahu


Pinchas and Zimri: The Anatomy of an Argument

To Fight for Peace

The Light of the Moon

Lover of Peace or Fanatic?

Audio and Essays Parashat Balak

Audio and Essays Parashat Balak

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Parashat Balak 5775; The Road Not Taken

Sex Idolatry and Death

Parshat Balak -Understanding the protagonists

Parshat Balak / Balak and Biliam = Amalek

Parshat Balak - Linking the 2 parts of the parsha

Parshat Balak / The Power of Bilam

Parashat Balak 5774 Reading Anti-Semites

Friends and Family

Opening the Mouth of the Donkey

The Evil Eye

Balaam's Curse

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Parashat Hukat 5775 Déjà vu – all over again?

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Hukat 5775
Déjà vu all over again?

It seems like déjà vu: a lack of resources leads to complaints, which brings about Divine intercession - and so it goes, again and again. But this time is different. This time, instead of the people suffering for their impatience and insolence, it is Moshe and Aharon who are punished. Remarkably, they are accused of a lack of faith in God:

God said to Moshe and Aharon, 'You did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites! Therefore, you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given you.' (20:12)

The punishment is sudden and shocking, but what was the transgression that brought the leadership of Moshe and Aharon to an end? How could they, of all people who ever lived, be accused of not believing in God?

By this point in the narrative, we are accustomed to the complaints - the lovely food they had in Egypt[1], the wisdom of having gone off to die in the desert rather than staying put in Egypt, where there were ample graveyards.[2] The complaints were taken to a new level by Datan and Aviram, who accused Moshe of having taken them FROM a land that flowed with milk and honey![3] Moshe reacts to this latest round of complaining in much the same way as he did when the people first began their complaints years before. [4]  The two instances seem so similar to us that we are not surprised when Moshe once again strikes the rock to draw out water, this time adding a verbal rebuke for good measure:

'Listen now, you rebels!' shouted Moshe. 'Shall we produce water for you from this rock?' (20:10)

In what seems to be an expression of frustration with the cumulative corpus of complaints and criticism, Moshe lumps the latest example of the peoples dissatisfaction together with all the previous episodes, calling them rebels. And yet, despite the general sense that this litany of complaints has been heard over and over, there is something different in this particular case.

The people did not have any water, so they began demonstrating against Moshe and Aharon. The people quarreled with Moshe. 'We wish that we had died together with our brothers before God!' they declared. 'Why did you bring God's congregation to this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? It is an area where there are no plants, figs, grapes or pomegranates. [Now] there is not even any water to drink!' (20:2-5)

When we look at their words carefully and compare them to the earlier water crisis, a few significant but subtle differences come to our attention. In both cases, the perfunctory Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? is there, but other elements of their complaints are radically different: Now, the frame of reference has shifted. Rather than longing for the zucchini and watermelons of Egypt,[5] the people bemoan the lack of figs, grapes and pomegranates the fruits of the Land of Israel. In other words, rather than demanding to return to Egypt, as they had in the past, they are complaining that they are not in the Land of Israel. Moreover, their complaint reveals a deep-seated God-consciousness: 'We wish that we had died together with our brothers before God!' and, 'Why did you bring God's congregation to this desert?

This is a new generation, and they have made great forward strides. Whereas their fathers lamented ever having left the security and familiarity of Egypt, the generation of the children laments the fact that they have not yet arrived in the Promised Land. Whereas the previous generation had the audacity to question whether or not God was in their midst, this new generation is acutely aware of Gods presence, and of their own unique status as a covenantal community. This is not the same complaint that we have heard time and time again -  yet Moshe fails to hear the difference between what they are saying and what their parents said. He fails to appreciate the nuances, and responds as if they are murmuring the same complaints. He accuses them of being rebels without pausing to consider the validity of this accusation: To be sure, they were unhappy with their lot, dissatisfied with life in the desert but is this not as it should be? Should not every Jew who finds himself outside of the Land of Israel feel unsettled, dissatisfied, incomplete?  

When we read their complaints carefully, a new picture emerges: These people were not looking back with fond nostalgia, they were pining for the future. Far from attempting to shirk the destiny that awaited them, they were over-eager to embrace it. Rather than complaining about the demands that their peoplehood placed upon them, they sought out Gods presence. If they were to die, they preferred to die in front of God. These people thirsted for holiness the holiness of the Land of Israel, and of proximity to God.

Moshe suffered from pre-conceived notions of what the people wanted. Rather than listening to what they actually said, he heard echoes of the past. It was Moshe who was looking backward, mistakenly attributing the mindset of the previous generation to the people who now stood before him. Moshes sin was one of missed opportunity. By responding to what he thought they had said, and not to what they actually said, he failed to sanctify God in the eyes of this new generation.

Part of belief in God is belief in the Jewish People; Moshe expresses a lack of faith in the new generation when he calls them rebels, and is therefore guilty of a lack of faith in God Himself. God reprimands him: The Jewish People - this new generation that stands before Moshe and demands holiness, the generation that expresses deep yearning for the Land of Israel and awareness of Gods involvement in their lives - has faith. It is Moshe, and not the young nation, who has failed to move ahead. Moshe hears the complaints of the past; in a very real sense, both he and Aharon are a part of the previous generation the generation that would not merit the Land of Israel. Therefore, Moshe and Aharon were sentenced to stay behind with their own generation, while this new generation would make their way to the Land for which they longed, the land of their dreams.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

                                            Echoes of Eden

[1] Shmot 16:3, Bamidbar 11:4,5
[2] Bamidbar 14:2,3
[3] Bamidbar 16:13,14
[4] Shmot 17:2-7.
[5] B’midbar 11:5.