Sunday, July 06, 2014

Derasha on Parashat Balak: The Modesty of our Ancestors

Though there is no public mourning on Shabbat, we are still reeling from the tragedy of this past week.  Three of our precious sons were taken from us in cold blood.  We feel lost and helpless, we don’t know where to turn.  I cannot help but think of the plaintive words of the love-sick fair-maiden, representing the congregation of Israel, in Shir haShirim (1:7-8):
הַגִּידָה לִּי, שֶׁאָהֲבָה נַפְשִׁי, אֵיכָה תִרְעֶה, אֵיכָה תַּרְבִּיץ בַּצָּהֳרָיִם; שַׁלָּמָה אֶהְיֶה כְּעֹטְיָה, עַל עֶדְרֵי חֲבֵרֶיךָ אִם-לֹא תֵדְעִי לָךְ, הַיָּפָה בַּנָּשִׁים; צְאִי-לָךְ בְּעִקְבֵי הַצֹּאן, וּרְעִי אֶת-גְּדִיֹּתַיִךְ, עַל, מִשְׁכְּנוֹת הָרֹעִים.
“Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where do you shepherd? Where do you rest at mid-day? Why should I be like one who veils herself by the flocks of your companions?”  In response, the object of her affection, her beloved, representing G-d, responds, “If you do not know, O fairest of women, go your way in the footsteps of the flocks and pasture your kids beside the shepherds' dwellings.”
Rashi explains the allegory in the following way:
If you do not know, My assembly and My congregation, O fairest of women, [the fairest] of the nations, where you will pasture and be saved from the hand of those who oppress you, to be among them, and that your children should not perish, ponder the ways of your early ancestors, who received My Torah and kept My watch and My commandments, and go in their ways, and as a reward for this, you will pasture your kids beside the princes of the nations, and so did Jeremiah say (31:20): “…set up signposts…keep in mind the highway, the road that you traveled….”
In the face of tragedy, when we feel lost and filled with despair—when we don’t know how we will be saved from those who oppress us—we turn back to our early ancestors and seek inspiration and guidance from the example of their lives.  In this derasha I want to explore that virtue which characterized so many of our great leaders: צניעות—often translated as discreetness or modesty.  Hopefully, we can find some signposts, to use Jeremiah’s phrase, to guide our steps through this tragedy.  Though I always try to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative I will try to gain insight into this virtue by contrasting Moshe, most humble of men, with Bilam, the embodiment of the negative—what the Greeks might have called hubris and we might simply call being full of yourself.
This week’s parasha, Parashat Balak, is mystifying to say the least.  It stands as the sequel to the great military victories Bnei Yisrael won against the Trans-Jordanian kingdoms of Sichon and Og related at the end of last week’s parasha.  Having swiftly conquered a vast stretch of land on the eastern bank of the Jordan River from Mount Chermon in the north to Nachal Arnon, the Wadi of Arnon, in the south—the northern border of the Kingdom of Moav—Bnei Yisrael are now camped in the steppes of Moav.
Our parasha begins:
Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites.
What did Balak see?  Quite simply—an existential threat to his nation’s existence right at his front door.  Bnei Yisrael’s victory over the Emorite kings was startlingly rapid and absolute.  Balak feared that his nation was next on the list.  Perplexingly, instead of making military preparations, Moav sought counsel from the Elders of Midian.
Rashi comments:
Why did Moav take counsel with Midian (their ancient enemies)? Since they saw that Israel was supernaturally victorious [in their battles], they said, “The leader of these [people] was raised in Midian. Let us ask them what his character is.” They told them, “His strength is solely in his mouth.” They said, “We too will come against them with a man whose strength is in his mouth.”
This was none other than Bilam. 
While pondering this Rashi my mind kept taking me to a beautiful distinction developed by Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zecher tzadik l’vrakha, in the Lonely Man of Faith.  There, in his exploration of the religious personality, he distinguished between what he called numinous and kerygmatic man.  Though unfamiliar Latin and Greek terms, once fleshed out they are really quite powerful categories. (Just a note: though I use the word man these distinctions would of course apply equally to both men and women.)
Kerygmatic man is the man who possesses a kerygma, literally, a message.  He is a man of mastery and accomplishment.  He is respected for his talents and the contributions he makes to society.  He might be a scholar, a warrior, a physician, a lawyer, even a rabbi.
Numinous man, like his Maker resides in solitude.  His being is mysterious.  He is unknowable.  His inner life is rich and full of meaning.  But his inner world is wholly incommunicable. 
While the gaze of kerygmatic man is always to the next horizon, numinous man’s gaze is inward and upward to the source of all being.
Words come easily to kerygmatic man.  He can enthrall audiences and inspire masses to action.  Lofty mountains and vast oceans cannot stand in his way.
Words do not come naturally to numinous man.  Numinous man does not, of his own accord, have a message.  What message he has to bear is thrust upon him—against his will (אנוס על פי הדיבור).
Bilam was a talented speaker.  His power—as the Elders of Midian reported—was in his mouth. 
Moshe was כבד פה וכבד לשון—heavy of mouth and tongue—words alluded him, he could not make them flow, there was no grace in his words. 
But Bilam’s words served to conceal as much as they served to inspire.  Only by hiding true intentions and deeper meanings was he able to enact his rhetorical charm. 
Plato defined rhetoric as an art of leading the soul by means of speech.
Moshe, by this definition, had no rhetorical art.  He did not lead souls with his words—he was moved to words by the ultimate Word, the Word of G-d.  And, in turn that Word, the Word of the Eternal one was able to enter the numinous hearts of Bnei Yisrael and be, for them, a fountain of life.  Moshe was merely an instrument—through the man with no speech of his own the ultimate Power spoke.
Ultimately, the Torah wants us to know that Bilam was no more perceptive—in fact less so—than his donkey.  As Bilam set out on his fool’s errand to curse Israel at the behest of Balak his donkey saw the fate that was to ultimately overcome his rider.
And G-d’s wrath flared because [Bilam] was going with [Balak’s messengers], and the L-rd’s angel stationed himself in the road as an adversary to him, and he was riding his donkey, and his two lads were with him.  And the donkey saw the L-rd’s angel stationed in the road, his sword unsheathed in his hand, and the donkey swerved from the road and went into the field, and Bilam struck the donkey to steer her back to the road.  And the L-rd’s angel stood in the footpath through the vineyards, a fence on one side and a fence on the other.  And the donkey saw the L-rd’s angel and was pressed against the wall and pressed Bilam’s leg against the wall, and once more he struck her.
Rashi comments that the angel [by drawing its sword] was saying, “This wicked man abandoned the tools of his craft, for the weapon of the nations of the world is the sword, and [here] he is coming with his mouth, which is their craft.  So too, I shall take hold of that which is his and assail him with his own craft.”
Bilam used his words as one would more appropriately use a sword—to make others yield to his will.  He thought that through the sheer force of his kerygma, his message, he could manipulate G-d.  All he had to do was divine the right time and place, bring the right sacrifices and he would magically be able to alter the ancient destiny of a people beloved by G-d. As it say in this week’s haftorah from Sefer Micha:
5. My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Bilaam the son of Beor answered him. From Shittim to Gilgal, may you recognize the righteous deeds of the L-rd. 6. With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? 7. Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  8. He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the L-rd demands of you; עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ–do justice, do acts of loving-kindness, and walk discreetly with your G-d.
So what is the צניעות that G-d wants from us?  To let our numinous-self walk with G-d.  In other words, when coming before G-d forget what it says on your resume.  G-d doesn’t care.  There is nothing hidden before G-d. 
Micha reminds us that G-d sent us three prophets: Miriam, Aharon and Moshe.  Each stand as personalities that exemplify true צניעות.  When Micha tells us to walk discreetly with G-d perhaps he is telling us:
Be like Miriam in victory, who quietly stood off at a distance and orchestrated the rescue of her helpless baby brother.  She sought no applause or honors.
Be like Aharon in tragedy, who quietly accepted the fate of his two sons on what should have been the most joyous of days, the inauguration of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary.  He knew when not to speak—when no words would suffice.  He knew how to accept even G-d’s harshest decrees.
And finally, be like Moshe, the loyal shepherd who gave up the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace and then the security of his home and family in Midian, not for honor or prestige, but as a messenger.  Only Moshe, the antithesis of Bilam, the man with no kerygma, no message, could be the messenger of our redemption and the righteous teacher of our Torah.

My prayer is that בזכות האבות, in the merit of our ancestors, we find a way to work through this collective trauma as Miriam, Aharon and Moshe would have: בצניעות.

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