Archive for Chukat/Balak

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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Chukkat/Balak: Opportunities, Gained and Lost

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chukkat/Balak

Hope you had a happy Fourth of July- if you’re in the USA, then I hope
you had a happy holiday, and if not, well, I hope your Fourth was
equally good going about your regular day, even without the excitement
of barbecues and fireworks. The excitement continues, of course, in
the double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak, which includes
rebellions, plagues, sorcerers, battles, negotiations, blessings,
curses, and most poignantly, the deaths of Miriam and Aharon. The
generation of the Exodus is dying out, and the next generation will be
ready to enter the Land, under new leadership.

Moshe is told to take his brother and nephew (Aharon’s son Eleazar) up
a mountain, where the garments of the High Priest will be taken off
Aharon and put on his son. Rashi and others comment that it is a great
comfort to Aharon that he will see his son dressed as High Priest, but
nevertheless, Aharon dies on the mountain, and Moshe and Eleazar come
back to the people:

“When Moshe and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole
community knew that Aharon had breathed his last. All the house of
Israel bewailed Aharon thirty days.” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 20: 28-29)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aharon was mourned
even more than Moshe: the text in Devarim/ Deuteronomy 34:8 says
simply that “the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for
thirty days,” but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the “house of
Israel” mourned for Aharon. Rashi says that “all” refers to both the
men and the women; he bases himself on a famous midrash that Aharon
was a pursuer of peace, who made peace between husbands and wives
(among others.)

However, Hirsch also comments on an irony in the image of the entire
Israelite nation mourning its beloved High Priest- only a few verses
before, when they ran out of water, the people were rioting and
rebelling against the very man they are now crying for! The text is
explicit about this:

“The community was without water, and they gathered themselves against
Moses and Aaron. . . . ” (Bamidbar 20:2)

In Hirsch’s interpretation, the people loved Aharon, and their grief
for him was the more genuine emotion; their anger was only a passing
feeling based on temporary conditions or frustrations. That’s
certainly plausible- we’ve all spoken unkind words to our loved ones
when we’re exasperated or exhausted by other problems. However, it’s
also possible that the intensity of the communal grief is deeply
connected to their earlier outburst of frustration. Perhaps the
difference between the death of Moshe and the death of Aharon is that
Moshe blessed the people before he died, whereas Aharon’s final
interaction with the community is one of contention, in which the
people demand water and he and Moshe “strike the rock” in anger in
order to give it to them.

This turns Hirsch’s and Rashi’s interpretation around, to a certain
degree: perhaps the Torah adds an extra word to denote the pain the
Israelites felt upon losing Aharon not only because he was a beloved
man of peace, but because they had unfinished reconciliation to do
after the strife in the wilderness. To take the comparison further: at
the end of his life, Moshe gave his blessing, and the people received
it, but Aharon, whose explicit job description included blessing the
people, simply went up the mountain without having a chance to take
his leave. (Verse 27 says that the three men went up the mountain in
front of the entire community, but there is no indication that the
people knew what was going to happen.)

In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing
Aharon, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make
their peace. Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, this makes
sense to me; while there is no such thing as “closure” (I’d like to
ban that word!), having a chance to say goodbye, with words and
rituals of transition and blessing, often brings great comfort to both
the dying and the soon-to-be bereaved.

Of course, the real challenge comes from knowing that any of us could
be “called to the mountain” at any time, making t’shuvah and
reconciliation a constant spiritual imperative. It’s quite simple,
really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to
make peace with your loved ones! The people bewailed Aharon, but I
believe they also bewailed their lost opportunity to ask forgiveness
and express their love. Such opportunities can be fleeting, and are
precious beyond measure.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as per usual, the full text of the parsha is here along with some
commentary:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/

and a summary and other commentaries are here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/balak_index.htm

BUT, here’s something new and fun- I found a Torah commentary blog
which has many interesting thoughts on the parshiot, from modern,
classic, and Hasidic perspectives:

http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com/

check it out and tell me what you think.

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