Sunday, August 21, 2011

Perfectly Possible Miracles

The shabbat before the 9th of Av is called Shabbat Hazon.  It is named for the first word of the haftarah, the first chapter of Isaiah, Chazon (vision) of Yishayahu/Isaiah.  The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz"l, put it that we ought not to consider this shabbat a mournful day.  First of all, mourning is inappropriate for shabbat, and second he felt it should be a day of motivation towards a more positive future.  I wonder whether his idea might stem from a frequent Jewish practice.  We frequently diminish the joy of a positive occasion, removing a drop of wine as we recite each plague at the Pesach seder, there is a fast of the first born before Pesach and of Esther before Purim.  I am inclined to see the Rebbe's slant on Shabbat Chazon as seeking the same sort of balance by taking from the full cup of bitterness tisha b'av represents.

I learned an interesting lesson recently regarding Rashi's commentary.  When he says he is explaining according to the plain meaning of the text ("Pshat"), Rashi frequently seems to me to involve some imaginative story.  For example, he says at one point that Sarah was rewarded with renewed youth and breasts swollen with milk, and she suckled all the children that came to Isaac's weaning.  I took this to be fairly fanciful.  Does anyone else remember the Chinese policewoman during the last big earthquake there, who left her baby with her mom, and found nursing about a dozen babies, saving their lives by the way, was the most effective emergency aid she could render.  In other words, there's no reason Sarah couldn't have done the same.  Silly me.

Crippling Self-Interest

I don't know how many times I've started reading the Torah, and gotten up to Joseph  in Breishit or the Mishkan in Shmot before bogging down and starting over some time later.  For the first time since my daughter was born, this Summer I've read the Torah in the original up to Balak in Bamidbar.  

We've read bits of the parsha at many Shabbat breakfasts for years, and we've read Balak specifically several times.  Somehow, the stories of Sihon, the Amorite king of Cheshbon, and Og, the king of Bashan, which immediately precede it submerged in my mind.  Reading them first, suddenly Balak's desperation to acquire Bilam's services makes total sense.

Moshe sends messengers to Sihon, saying Israel has no interest in his lands or resources, will keep on the highway, but can we please cross his land?  The same message is sent to Og of Bashan.  The response in both cases is not only negative, but hostile.  Both gather all the force they can and come out to attack Israel.  Both of them and their forces are annihilated, leaving no remnant, not even the frequent "and I alone remain to tell thee" guy.  Their lands are conquered.

Now comes the Balak story.  Apparently, he intends to deny Israel passage (Couldn't they just go through the territory they just conquered?), and intends to fight us, or expects us to initiate hostilities with him.  He knows that Sihon and Og paid a hefty price for trusting to the valor of their soldiery.  He therefore turns to a prophet, not an Israelite one, but a prophet of the Israelite G-d.

Balak doesn't get that this G-d is not one of the concocted, carved Elilim.  When Bilam says he can only do what H" permits, Balak clearly interprets it as a negotiating position.  He sends a second delegation, larger and more impressive than the first, to fetch Bilam.  He asks, when Bilam arrives, why he didn't want to come, since Balak surely would reward him well, as if that was the only important consideration.  

Balak's "hired" prophet, however displays his integrity and indeed three times says the words H" puts in his mouth.  The first time, when Bilam, amid great pop and sacrificing, blesses Israel, Balak just won't give up, just can't get that there are nonmaterial considerations at play.  He takes Bilam up on a second hill, and a third, where Bilam utters words we say every morning to this day, "Mah tovu ohaleicha Yaakov", How good your tents are, Yaakov, your dwellings, Israel.

The inability or unwillingness to see any perspective but one's own self interest can be crippling.