Chukat-Balak: Two Kinds of Memories

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukat/Balak

This week we have a double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, and so we read the
hafarah for Balak, from the book of Micah. This collection of prophecies can be
a bit confusing, as it’s not exactly clear which historical events form the
context for the preaching, but for today, it’s enough to know that the basic
idea of the book is that God has sent troubles to Israel, in the form of
surrounding enemies, as recompense for their sins- but Israel will ultimately be
redeemed and restored. The part which forms this week’s haftarah specifically
mentions the king Balak, who, as related in this week’s Torah portion, hired
Bilaam to curse the Israelites and stop their advance. So Micah tells the people
to remember how God saved them from Balak, so they may again turn to God, and
this is the connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah:

“My people,
Remember what Balak king of Moab
Plotted against you,
And how Balaam son of Beor
Responded to him.
[Recall your passage]
From Shittim to Gilgal–
And you will recognize
The gracious acts of the Lord.” (Micah 6:5)

OK, so far, so good, even if the idea of “God will send enemies to punish
Israel” is a difficult and problematic concept- we’ll unpack that more another
day. Let’s turn instead to another interesting detail in the verse above: the
prophet’s exhortation that the people should remember all that God did for them
from “Shittim to Gilgal.” Astute subscribers will remember that we discussed
Gilgal just last week- it’s the place where the Israelites first camped after
arriving in the Land, and the place where Shaul was affirmed as the first king
of the united monarchy. However, Gilgal is also mentioned in later texts as a
place of sin and wickedness (see Hosea 4:15 and 9:15, for example, among other
places.)

Similarly, Shittim has both positive and not-so-positive historical associations
: in the book of Bamidbar [Numbers], it’s the place where Joshua was affirmed as
leader after Moshe, but it’s also the place where the Israelite men sinned with
Moabite women. (Cf Numbers 25-27.) It’s where Joshua sent spies out in the
beginning of the conquest of the land, as well. (Josh. 2)

So it’s not clear what Micah means when he tells the people to remember what God
did for them “from Shittim to Gilgal.” Does he mean that God sends leaders to
Israel, and Israel accepts them, as they did with Shaul at Gilgal and Joshua at
Shittim- thus implying that the people have a history of celebration and
blessing? Or does he mean that despite Israel’s sins at Gilgal and Shittim, God
will never forsake the people? To put it another way, are we supposed to
remember the good things that happened at these places- so that Israel will be
inspired to return to the spirit which prevailed at those times- or are we
supposed to remember the bad things that happened at these places, so Israel
will be chastened and humbled by Divine grace despite our noodnik behavior?

Well, as it turns out, great Torah commentators haven’t figured this one out
either. Hirsch, for his part, favors the latter interpretation- it’s about
Divine grace and patience in the face of Israel’s not-so-illustrious history.
Fishbane, however, in the Etz Hayim commentary, sees this geographical reference
as a “synopsis of place of divine beneficence,” citing the transformation of
Bilaam’s curse into a prayer and the people’s acceptance of Shaul as king. To be
fair, these interpretations are not contradictory- it’s a matter of emphasis.

Yet perhaps the prophet is being more subtle than first reading might suggest.
Maybe it’s precisely because both Gilgal and Shittim are places of complex
memory that they serve as shorthand for the richness and complexity of a deep
and long-standing relationship, whether it be between a people and its Source or
even on a much smaller scale, a community, family, or friends. In any long
relationship, there is love and there is disappointment; there is the memory of
celebration and the memory of tension, and so perhaps renewal requires a more
holistic introspection. Israel both celebrated and sinned at Shittim and Gilgal-
so to move forward into the future, Israel must remember its ideals and
commitments, to be called back to them, as well as remembering how the covenant
stood firm despite Israel’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Seen this way, Shittim to Gilgal isn’t about two places, it’s about two kinds of
memories: memories that call us back to who we truly are, and memories of the
good that has been bestowed on us. Taken together, they lead to healing,
humility and forgiveness, and that’s truly hopeful.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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