D'var Torah Balak - “Mah Tovu - How Good it is to be Different”
July 22, 2016 - Congregation Kol Ami
Written and delivered by Jeremy Gimbel

This week, we witnessed a wealthy, racist, xenophobic, and paranoid leader use his power and influence to speak ill of a people, for the sole reason that they are different. Of course, I’m speaking of the character Balak in this week’s Torah portion.

Balak is a king of the neighboring Moabite community and he is fearful of the Jewish population. They’re just too big, he complains, they have too much influence...I think we have heard that before. Balak decides that the only way he can get a leg up on the Israelites is to hire a local prophet, Balaam, to stand on top of a mountain and curse the Israelites. Although Balak does his best to persuade Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam repeatedly tells Balak that he can only speak the words God puts in his mouth. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Balaam goes to the high place and takes a look at the Israelite community, he does not curse the Israelites, but he blesses them, differences and all: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” This blessing was so powerful that the rabbis who formed our prayerbook ensured that the first prayer we say in a morning service begins with these words: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

What is it about these tents and dwelling places that brought Balaam to offer these words? Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Talmud that Balaam saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face each other, and that the Israelites thus respected each other's privacy. (Bava Batra 60a) In other words, the Israelites respected community cohesion and the right to be different, unique, individual. 

Jews embrace differences. Take a second and think about what the one, central teaching of Judaism is. If I was to poll the room, I’m sure I would get different answers from nearly all of you. After all, as the saying goes, if you put two Jews in a room you will get three opinions. The rabbis struggled with this as well. For Rabbi Akiba, a -- not the, but a -- central teaching of the Torah was to love your neighbor as yourself. For Hillel, it was, “What is hateful to you do not do to another.” While these stalwarts of our tradition could not agree on a central tenet of Judaism, the fact that they cannot agree is actually one of the more beautiful things about Judaism: we embrace dialogue, we embrace nuance, we embrace the right to be different. Judaism does not say, “You must think this way;” Judaism says, “Oh, good, you’re thinking!”

Indeed, one of our Jewish values is “hakarat hatov - seeing the good.” Hakarat hatov is about keeping a positive outlook -- seeing the good in the world at all moments of life. In Pirkei Avot, the lessons of our ancestors, we are taught, “Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with his lot.” (Avot, 4:1) We embody hakarat hatov when we sit at our Passover Seders and we say, “dayeinu - it would have been enough.” We embody hakarat hatov when we sing Mah Tovu and say, “Yes, there may be issues with our house, but our dwelling is pretty wonderful” and we “raise our voices in thanksgiving.” (Ps. 26:7) And we embody hakarat hatov when we reflect on this week and look at all of the good that happened this week: the NBA is standing up for LGBT rights, thousands stood up proudly at the Jerusalem Pride parade, and we almost went a whole week without a mass-casualty terrorist event. I know these may seem like small victories in the grand scheme of things, but hakarat hatov, seeing the good, is like gratitude - you have to start small. In a world full of k’vetching, Jews are different because we tend to look towards the good.

Truthfully, it is the differences and distinctions that we observe that make us who we are. Jews, for example, observe time differently. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so beautifully articulated in his book, The Sabbath, Jews on Shabbat create a “palace in time.” When we say kiddish, we are not imbuing special holiness to the wine or grape juice we drink. Rather, the wine is merely a conduit as we attribute holiness to the time of Shabbat, which we separate from the rest of the week. We do this with Shabbat and all of our holy times - we live out our differences with others by how we observe time.

So, perhaps Balaam’s blessing was a reminder to us all. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was meant to hold a mirror up to us. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was really something very Jewish: embodying the value of hakarat hatov, seeing the good, and celebrating what makes Jews different. 

This Shabbat, may we be like Balaam, reminding us to celebrate our differences, to see the good, and create a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of communal wholeness, of goodness, of peace. 

Mah tovu - how good it is to be different!
Delivered on July 15, 2016 at Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA.

Something happened to me on the road the other day. Usually, when I’m driving east on Wilshire to get home, I go down to Crescent Heights and turn right. During this drive, I had the mapping app Waze on, and it told me that instead of turning on Crescent Heights, I should turn a few blocks earlier, at Stanley. I did what many of you have probably done: I ignored Waze and went about my drive, continuing down Wilshire because that was my habit, and I know better than a silly app. Of course, as soon as I passed Stanley, I saw why it wanted to route me differently: there was construction narrowing Wilshire from three lanes down to one.

Waze presented me with a different course. And I, in my pride and in my arrogance and in my ignorance, decided to keep on my own course, even though it proved to be the wrong one. While in my story, my choices only cost me a few minutes, the choices Moses made cost him much more.

When the Israelites first left Egypt, after singing and dancing with the joy of their redemption from bondage, they needed direction, guidance, support. They turned to Moses with anger and said, “You brought us up from Egypt just to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3) Moses, who also needed direction, guidance, and support, turned to God and asked, “What am I supposed to do with these people? If they keep this up they’re going to kill me!” (Ex. 17:4) So God, giving direction, guidance, and support, told Moses to take his rod, the same one that he had just used to split the Nile, strike a specific rock at Horev, and water would come out of it and the people will would drink. (Ex. 17:5-6) So, just to recap: Israelites are upset because they don’t have water, Moses asks God what to do, God says to hit a rock, water comes out and the Israelite’s thirst is quenched.

Fast forward about 40 years, and to this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. For all we know, Moses was in the habit of striking the rock in order to get water: when people would get thirsty, he’d hit the rock, and water would come out. But then something changed - his sister, Miriam died. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England, teaches, “[Moses] owed his sense of identity to her. Without Miriam, he could never have become the human face of God to the Israelites, law-giver, liberator and prophet. Losing her, he not only lost his sister. He lost the human foundation of his life.” (Sacks, “Healing and the Trauma of Loss - Chukat 5776”) After she is buried, the text tells us the people are again without water, and they resort to their familiar complaints, “You brought us up from Egypt just to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Num. 20:4-5) 

Moses needed direction, guidance, and support, so he turns to God for help. God, giving direction, guidance, and support, told Moses to take his rod, the same one that he had used all those years ago to split the Nile, speak to a specific rock, and water would come out of it and the people will drink. (Num. 20:8) But Moses, in his pride and his arrogance and his pain decides to take the wrong path, ignoring the voices of his better judgement. He lets the rowdy crowds get to him, and like a showman entertaining the masses, shouts, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10) You can almost hear the cheers of approval from the crowd after that statement. But instead of speaking to the rock as God had told him, Moses strikes the rock…twice. Sure, water comes out, but God doles out a massive punishment to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Because you did not have-trust in me / to treat-me-as-holy before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore: / you (two) shall not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them.” (Num. 20:12, Fox translation) Moses did not heed the advice of his guide. And it cost him entering the promised land.

There are many interpretations for why this burst of anger caused Moses such a harsh punishment. Classic commentators point to the act of striking the rock, which made it seem as if Moses was the miraculous one and not God. Other interpretations point to the word that Moses uses to speak to the rebel-rousers, “Morim.” “Morim” has the same letters as his sister’s name, “Miriyam,” so perhaps, Moses made a freudian slip, expressing anger in his grief of his sister’s very recent death. Rabbi Sacks writes: “Moses at the rock was not so much a prophet as a man who had just lost his sister. He was inconsolable and not in control. He was the greatest of the prophets. But he was also human, rarely more so than here.” (Sacks, “Healing and the Trauma of Loss - Chukat 5776”)

These past few weeks, our world has been rocked by tragedy after tragedy after tragedy: Nice just last night, Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Istanbul, Orlando…all in the last month. It is as if we cannot even catch our breath and mourn before there is another horror, another tragedy, another moment of grief. While we may differ on how these events affect us, we should heed the lessons of Senator Tim Scott: “Just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean that it does not exist.” We all have felt the pain, the anguish of another these past few weeks.

At moments like this, we often feel powerless, grief-stricken, like we have no choice. The path we thought we were going down has changed. Before, we had joy, we had song, we had Miriam. Now, we have sadness, and Miriam is gone. In dealing with the sadness, some of us choose to shut off the noise, getting away from the news, from Facebook and Twitter. Others, like me, have found it difficult to remain silent. We post, we comment, we discuss. At our best we move others to action, and at our worst, we, like Moses, resort to our old habits, we feed into the rebel rousing, and we strike our keyboards, rather than having healthy, necessary conversations towards progress, towards our promised land: a world filled with justice and peace. 

While our responses to our grief are different, our desire to fix the world, l’taken et-haolam, is palpable. From the global level to the communal to the personal, what gives me hope is a recognition and a desire for civility, for compassion, for love. We know that there are many issues facing our world today — gun control, mental health, poverty, immigration, racial equality, anti-semitism, LGBTQ rights, Israel…and that does not include the personal and communal sins we acknowledge on the High Holidays.

Each of us, as humans created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, can embody our Higher Power, however we may see it, to bring more goodness into the world. And, like Moses, we can turn to God for guidance, and learn to be quiet enough to hear the response. Through our actions, through our speech, through our lives we can be healers, we can give direction, guidance, and support while speaking to each other, bringing forth waters of compassion and life. 

This Shabbat, may we acknowledge the signs that tell us that we need to take a different path. May we have the humility to be open to the voices around us which strive to enhance our spirits and our world. And this Shabbat, dear God please, may we have peace and wholeness, a Shabbat shalom.