Thursday, June 20, 2013

Parashat Balak: Not Turning Away from the Negative

We break the world up into good and evil. But I think one of the points of monotheism is that it’s all from God, all interconnected in some way.

Maybe that’s the point of the enemy’s blessing of Israel in this week’s parsha, Parashat Balak. If we divide the world up into things worth pursuing and those not worth pursuing, then an enemy’s curse would definitely be among those to avoid. And yet, we end up using the words of this enemy’s curse turned blessing in our regular prayer service each morning – mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, “How good are the tents of Jacob.” There is energy and power in the negative, and if we can somehow tap into that energy and make it our own, then we have truly made the world one.

The lesson is about not writing anything off, either in ourselves or in others. Sometimes it is precisely that moment of pain, of anger or of illness which has the most to teach us, the most power to bless us. Everything is a tool in our work in this world.

I think that part of believing in one God involves believing that these painful aspects of life are also part of God’s world, and that they too have an energy and a power that is in need of redemption. We are called not to shut them out, but to use them -- as an opportunity for growth, as an opportunity to transform them and ourselves from a curse into a blessing. May we find the strength to do this work.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Parashat Hukat: Speech that Draws Water

God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock and it would bring forth water for the people. Instead, he hit the rock twice.

Maybe he did try speaking, but the speaking didn’t work. The Torah tells us that he gathered the people and, before hitting the rock, he spoke these words: Shimu na Hamorim, “Listen up, you rebels, are we going to get water from this rock?” This is speech. Perhaps this was the speech that Moshe thought would elicit water from the rock.

But it didn’t. It didn’t because only gentle loving speech brings forth water. Moshe’s speech is angry and dripping with sarcasm. He attacks the people at their very essence. He doesn’t just say, “You acted badly and rebelliously,” but you are rebels. These are words of despair and faithlessness in the possibility of change. They do not inspire, but degrade. They make the people feel badly about themselves. We will never be any good. We are, of our very essence, bad people.

Such words cannot bring forth water; they block it from flowing. There is water of life and creativity and spirit in every thing and every person in this world. God created them all through speech and speech is capable of bringing out their essence, their beauty, their power. But not such speech, not angry, hopeless speech.

What it takes is the speech of brachah, blessing. After God created the world with speech, He gave over the power of speech to humans, the power to praise God and recognize the beauty of His world through speech and the power to bless other human beings. This is the speech of song and the speech of love. It is the speech of Yaakov on his death bed who says, “May the angel who rescued me bless these children” and it is the speech song of the people of Israel at the Sea: “Who is like You, O Lord?”

Such speech does have the power to bring forth water. (Indeed, see a bit later in the parsha, where the people sing another water song, connected to a new water well they have dug – 21:17). In its joy and its love, such speech brings forth the hidden well-springs of water in each of us. Angry speech like Moshe’s does not accomplish its purpose and so necessarily leads to blows. The rock – and the people – will not bring forth water that way except by force. With a gentle loving speech that inspires, who knows what kind of water can come forth?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Parashat Korah: Korah is Not Yaakov

Katonti Mikol Hahasadim Umekol HaEmet Asher Asita et Avedekha. “ I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant (Gen 32:11).” This is what Ya’akov says in the beginning of his prayer before Esav’s approach. Before asking for help, he first acknowledges his overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for all that he, Yaakov, has already been given. Katonti, he says; I feel “small,” in comparison to the gifts bestowed upon me, gifts of life and family, health and prosperity. I feel small and unworthy.

No, we are not in Parashat Vayishlach. In fact, we are not in the book of Genesis at all right now. But it strikes me that this sentiment of Yaakov’s is the perfect foil for the sentiment expressed by Korah in this week’s parsha. Korah is a Levite, and as such has certain special priveleges and roles to perform in the community. But instead of feeling fortunate, he looks at his cousins Moshe and Aharon and their roles as leader and High Priest, and feels jealous. Rav Lakhem, he says. You, Moshe and Aharon, have too much. You have taken too much for yourselves. All the rest of us deserve more.

Korah can only see the bounty of others, not his own. (Indeed, Moshe responds with the same phrase turned back on Korah: Rav Lakhem Benei Levi: Your Levites also have a lot, too much). Korah’s problem is that he doesn’t have the feeling of gratitude, the sense of being overwhelmed by the gifts of life, that Yaakov had. Yaakov says: I don’t even deserve what I have already been given. Korah says: I deserve more.

We all have this Korah tendency. It’s like the way children look at the size of their siblings’ cookies and say: Hey, how come she got more?! (My own children would never do this; it’s just what I hear from other parents.) It comes from a basic misunderstanding of the way things are in this world, thinking that we’re all separate, that there are a finite number of gifts, and if one person gets more, the rest of us get less. That’s not so. In some deep way, the more one person gets, the more we all get. That’s part of the notion of monotheism: God is one, the world is one, everything and everyone is interconnected and of a piece.

Korah’s view of the world leads into the ground which opened its mouth to swallow him. Yaakov’s leads up to heaven on the ladder he saw in his dream. Korah’s desire to be large makes him disappear into nothingness. Yaakov’s understanding of his smallness gives him access to greatness.

Katonti mikal hahasadim. I am unworthy of all the kindnesses. We have all been given many gifts in life. We are a thousand times blessed. May we learn to see the world not through Korah’s eyes, but through Yaakov’s.

[Israeli singer/song-writer Yonatan Razel recently put beautiful music to this “Katonti” passage. Click here to hear it.]