Balak

I was driving early morning with my daughter in the car, on the way to the bus that would take her to camp.  Traffic slowed as we approached a highway intersection.  Intermittently the driver behind me would beep her horn and shake her head with exasperation.  I wondered where she thought I could go. I did leave a nice space between me and the next car, but wasn’t going any slower than the rest of the traffic.  Did she think that if I filled that space, we’d all move faster? As she continued to shake her head and beep her horn, she reminded me of Balaam.  In this week’s Torah portion, Balaam gets frustrated when his donkey goes off the path and then won’t move.  He strikes the donkey.  He beats the donkey; the donkey won’t move.  No matter how hard this woman beeped her horn, traffic didn’t speed up.

When are the times in life that we are beating a donkey that won’t move? When are we frustrated trying to make something happen and no matter what we do to influence events, it still doesn’t happen?

Balak the King of Moab has sent Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam at first refuses explaining that he can only say the words that God gives him to say, but after Balak persists, Balaam agrees to go. Though God in one verse tells Balaam to go, in the next verse God is angry that Balaam is going and sends an angel to block the donkey’s path.  Balaam can’t see it, but the donkey isn’t moving because there is an angel of God in its way.

I started to wonder, what if we were to imagine that it was an angel blocking us from making something happen? How might that alter our perspective?  What if it was symbol if goodness, or divinity that stood between us and what we expect to happen, how might that change our perspective on moving forward?  What if all we had to do was we open our eyes, as God will do to Balaam, and we could see ahead, and see some sort of good where before we only saw frustration. How many of life’s challenges and disappointments might we face differently if we could also imagine good or divinity where we otherwise only saw obstruction?

God opens the donkey’s mouth, and the donkey tells Balaam that he can’t move because there is an angel in the way.  Only then does God uncover Balaam’s eyes, so that Balaam can see the angel.  I wonder if our animals, or our vehicles could talk, what might they tell us that we can’t notice for ourselves?

When are we so certain of ourselves and our expectations, that we too can only see the obstacle and not the possibilities? When are we only seeing what’s wrong with a situation, and not imagining the good that might be hidden in the situation as well?  When in our lives could we benefit from opening our eyes and trying to see the good that might be part of what is thwarting our immediate goals?

So often we think that we need to do step 1, step 2 and step 3, in order to go from where we are towards our goal.  When one of the steps breaks down, we get frustrated. We are in traffic, and can’t drive through the other cars to reach our destination.  But what if we need only to uncover our eyes, and see that there are more possibilities, more ways of imagining the problem and its solution?

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Chukat

A song has been in my head all week.  Actually one refrain from the song has been playing in a loop.  “Say something, talk to him, Say something, anything” it’s from a song in the musical Fun Home. I had the privilege to see this musical when I was in NYC just over a week ago.  A daughter wanting to communicate with her father about something important sings these lyrics.  The forty-something year old Alison has been revisiting memories of her father to try to explain why the beginning of her life as a lesbian coincided with her gay father’s suicide.  In this poignant scene, older Alison is remembering riding with her father in the car trying to reach him.  We see them sitting together.  He saying some things about himself, but not directly responding to her.  She is trying to find the words to connect with him.

The scene touches upon something that seems common to me in our human experience the moments when words seem to fail us, or where the disconnect between people seems to require more than language itself can provide.

I brought this experience with me into reading the section of this week’s Torah portion where God tells Moses and Aaron to talk to a stone and tell it to deliver water.   Compared with all the speaking for God that Moses has been doing for almost 40 years, compared to all the things Moses had heard from God or the Israelites for the same amount of time, this seems like a seemingly simple task.  Just say, “Rock, please bring us water.”

 Why when faced with what might be the simplest task of his 40-year career as a prophet and leader, does Moses seem to fail?

Moses says instead, “Listen up you rebels shall we get water for you from this rock?“ and then hits the rock with his rod.   Instead of a simple, easygoing approach, Moses sounds angry and forceful.

God says to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not have emunah, trust and faith, in me…you will not bring this congregation into the land that I give them.”  All the rabbinic commentators interpret this statement as the delivery of a punishment to Moses for the hitting of the rock instead of talking to it.  One can’t help but wonder why after all these years of leadership, after everything that Moses has done, does this one infraction merit such punishment.

 When do we lose trust that our words, that speech, that just saying what we want, or need can make an impact? 

 When do we bring emotion and a forcefulness into our communication that obscures our main message? 

I wonder if it might be God’s intention to remind us that sometimes simple words are all we need.  Perhaps this story is to tell us that even when you feel that you are speaking to a rock, a stone, something that seems inanimate and impossible to change, even when something appears to be so concrete, that trust and faith in yourself and your message may still be a better tool that physical strength or verbal aggression.

Sometimes the additional force and fluster diminish the power of speaking simply from the core of our being.   Sometimes aggressive language turns the listeners against the speaker instead of honestly conveying the intended meaning.

In a world with a lot of words, and lots of bluster, with emotion coloring our communications be them public, political, private or familial, we can learn from Moses’ mistake. We can remember that having emunah, trust and faith in others, means being able to speak directly from one heart to another.

Maybe instead of energetically trying to make the rocks in front of us listen, we can connect from within, and know that we will be heard.

Maybe the way to bridge the disconnect that Alison feels with her father is to “Say something” simple and heartfelt.