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As life rushes by, we often are left with little or no time for reflection. Often, we sadly find time to reflect on what we could have or should have done after something goes wrong. At times, we even lack the luxury of reflection. Health problems that suddenly emerge often become “wake up calls” for lifestyle changes. But relationship challenges often fester for years because they are not as dramatically life threatening as blocked arteries, yet equally deadly over the long run. This explains why strokes or heart attacks can sometimes have positive outcomes if people choose to change their diets and/or lifestyles, while relationship problems, which tend to build gradually, tend to get lost in the busyness of daily living. The large space devoted in newspapers, magazines and blogs to the subject of ‘diagnosing when a marriage/relationship is in trouble’ attests to the seriousness of this issue. We need to wonder, is there an “early warning test” of danger in a relationship?

For the Intelligent Jew, today’s parasha may offer a sort of litmus test. The Intelligent Jew stresses equal observance of the categories of Interpersonal Commandments (mitzvot bein Adam l’chavero) and Commandments Between G-d and Humans (mitzvot bein Adam l’Makom). This equilibrium of practice has psychological significance. We rightly point fingers at those who deviate towards either extreme: at the supposedly “Observant Jew” who steals from their employer or illegally gouges consumers, or the “Perpetual Yeshiva Learner” so engrossed with the intricacies of the Talmud that they can’t find time to help their wife around the house while she struggles with a large family produced (in part) through service to a Divine command. Indeed, such extreme typologies of behaviour invite ridicule and often receive disapproval from their own communities. But the vast majority of us struggle to balance serving the Divine and the Human.

The main character of today’s parasha, the prophet Bilaam, does nothing of the sort. Endowed with the true power of prophecy, he prefers to hide his link with G-d and focus on his business of being a “Curser for Hire.” Even when G-d directly warns him that it will be impossible to curse the Israelites, he persists in trying to both ignore G-d and mislead his Moabite customers into believing that he can earn his pay. After ignoring a direct Divine command to refuse to participate in the mission, Bilaam heads off to find the Israelites so they can be cursed and he can collect his fee. He is famously halted by an Angel of G-d standing in his path, visible only to his donkey. The irony of the prophet who sees less than the donkey is taken up with relish by the text, midrashim, and a bevy of commentators.

Strip aside the irony, which is intended to mock the character of Bilaam, and ask, how many times are we willfully blind to what is going on around in our relationships? G-d’s messages to Bilaam became more and more overt, yet he did not listen. Here is a man, once sensitive enough to hear the tones of the Divine, who is now deaf. When did this happen? We are not told. Similarly, in many relationships, the beginnings of serious deteriorations are marked by seemingly small steps, many of which can possibly be ignored in our rush to get on with the day. Perhaps the text’s silence on the origin of Bilaam’s spiritual fall is a comment on his failure to honour the equilibrium between proper behaviour towards both the Human and the Divine that helped him achieve his prophetic powers.

We are reminded once again that, as Maimonides famously argued, the Intelligent Jew seeks the ‘golden mean’ between overly serving either the Divine or the Human. Losing that equilibrium may not rob us of prophetic powers we may never attain, but it may well lead to an erosion of our relations with G-d, our family and friends, or both. We hope that we will ever be able to pray and play with equal fervor and honesty

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Every Shabbat I am delighted to study Torah after services with our Congregation. We have learned a great deal about how to analyze a text. This week’s commentary by Lord Chief Rabbi Sacks is fascinating in its conclusions alone. But I cite it in full below because it serves as an excellent example of how to learn Torah. We see how clearly the problem is set out, how various commentators are selected and analyzed, and then, most importantly, how the shortcomings of their various approaches are set out to be answered by a chiddisuh, a novel conclusion. May we all aspire to such skills.

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First the spies, now Korach. Troubles pile up around Moses and the leaders of the Israelites. Why at this point in the desert journey? Is there a connection between these two rebellious events? What does the Torah’s narrative seek to teach us?

Rabbi Aron Tendler observes that Moses’ humility is a key link between these narratives. In fact, from the narrative of Miriam and Aaron’s complaints against Moses through to the incident of the spies, Moses is consistently depicted as being very reluctant to answer his adversaries. When his siblings complain, Moses is silent and G-d becomes his spokesperson, declaring “Moses is more humble than anyone on earth—are you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” In the incident of the spies, Moses first reaction was to throw himself upon his face. He did this as well when confronted by Korach and his confederates.

Why does Moses not “stand up” to these vile men and their terrible insults? Does his humility merit praise or signify weakness? Rabbi Tendler argues that Moses’ humility is powerfully meritorious because he completely sublimated his ego to become the voice of G-d. As Rashi has pointed out—Moses says not one original word in Torah—everything he commands or instructs is at the behest of the Divine. His modesty was such that he eliminated his ego totally and became the mouthpiece of the Almighty. While this certainly affected his family life negatively, it is important to note that Moses deliberately exercised his free will to wipe out his ego. He continued to merit a high degree of prophetic vision precisely because he chose to maintain this self-abnegation. Moses’ greatness lies in his ability to maintain this modality despite the personal attacks he suffered during his tenure.

We might argue that Moses’ humility was excessive and hurtful to his family. True enough—but this narrative seeks to show that the opposite behavioural modality is far worse. Consider for a moment the characteristics of the ten spies, Korach, and his chief associates Datan and Aviram. All were leaders of the people, respected for their courage and zeal. Yet, they were fatally self-centered. The 10 spies believed that what they saw and experienced indicated that, despite all miracles to the contrary, the Divine promise that they would conquer Canaan was unachievable. Korach and his followers were blinded by geneology into believing that their birth rank alone guaranteed them leadership, and that Moses was ill suited to lead and his appointment of Aaron as High Priest was an act of nepotism rather than Divine Will.

As we struggle to improve ourselves it is often easy to go to extremes before we find the “golden mean.” It seems that some extremes are worse than others. Better to be overly humble than overly self-regarding—a message that today’s narcissistic society finds hard to believe. We live in a time of endless self-promotion by the ill-mannered, poorly educated, and self-indulgent. Every fool now writes a blog. We must try to look past this and strive to, like Moses, hear the voice of the Divine above the cacophony of society. A bit of “Korachian” self-promotion isn’t bad—but too much of it leads to the tragic results enumerated in today’s parasha.




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