This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches. In it, we encounter Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to fulfill his commission. Balaam recounts:
From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab's king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel's doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, . . . (Numbers 23:7-9)
Balaam, looking down at the Children of Israel's camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, sums up the people's history up to that point and well into the future: "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations," he sings.
At this point in the Book of Numbers, we find Moses' term of service moving toward a conclusion and God begins planning for his succession. God tells Moses, "Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired individual, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey" (Numbers 27:18-20).
Hearing these instructions could not have been anything but painful for Moses. The leader of the Israelites for so long, how could he imagine anyone else in his place? And yet, they were perhaps comforting too. There would be no power vacuum. God would not let the progress of the last forty years fade away. The political transition would be a smooth one, free of upheaval and discord.
A synagogue is, at its best, a place where each of us can feel that sense of rootedness and connectedness, a place where despite differences of age and experience; regardless of cultural background or class or sexual orientation or physical ability; whether we are "regulars" or newcomers, all of us can feel known and appreciated.
As we complete the Book of Numbers this week, we find the Israelites yearning for just such a place. Over the last eight weeks, our Torah readings have recorded the events of their 40 turbulent years in the wilderness. As we come to the last two portions of the book, Matot and Mas'ei, the Israelites are looking to come home.
This week's Torah portion, D'varim, occurs this year as it often does, on Erev Tishah B'Av — the ninth day of the month of Av. While not observed in many Reform communities, it is a day on which Jews throughout the world commemorate collectively all the tragedies experienced by our people. It was on this day, according to tradition, that both of our ancient, sacred Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, the first by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE, the second by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. Many more horrific acts committed against Jews have been associated with this date as well.
The slogan for the Torah portion known as Yitro should be “we’ve arrived.” The theophany on Mount Sinai – God’s Revelation of the Ten Commandments – is arguably the climax of the Torah (Exodus 20). But the story doesn’t end here – it is the post-Sinai textual journey where we learn that we exist in a perpetual state of arrival, constantly figuring out how to hear Torah as we walk through our daily lives.
The word for “and” in Hebrew is not a separate word: it is a one-letter prefix, the letter vav. Sometimes it is translated as and, other times it is best translated as “but”; sometimes, vav is a participle that doesn’t need to be translated. In the opening sentence of Parashat Mishpatim, the translation used in the Reform Movement’s Chumash discounts the vav that is attached to first word, v'eileh, "these" or "and these."
T’rumah opens with a call for the Israelites to bring to God what the standard English translation calls “gifts”: "The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved" (Ex. 25:1-2). After enumerating the precious metals, stones, and materials that would constitute such gifts, we learn the purpose: "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).
Israel's declaration of independence states that the Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people. There is another point of view, expressed in this portion, Chukat, which indicates that the people's birthplace is in the wilderness.
In Parashat Balak, King Balak and the people of Moab, central characters in the weekly Torah portion, are afraid of the Children of Israel. Balak tries to recruit the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel in order to weaken them and save Moab from impending defeat. King Balak sends for his prophet twice and Balaam barely responds. Three times Balak attempts to force a curse on Israel out of Balaam's mouth and three times he fails. It is fascinating to try to understand what causes a king to attempt the same solution, and fail again and again, and despite this, to not change his strategy.