Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This has been a painful week in our nation for so many reasons. Parents and children are suffering, fear is heightened, our discourse continues to become ever more polarized and just yesterday five journalists were killed at their jobs. Tonight I wish to dedicate this teaching on Seeking Truth, to those five innocent people in Maryland whose futures were snatched away from them. Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. May their souls be bound in the bonds of everlasting life.
This week we read a Torah portion that in many ways sounds more like a fairytale than a sacred text, but in its magical simplicity, speaks truths for our times. Once upon a time there was a King named Balak who ruled over Moab. He got word that masses of Israelites were headed toward his border. He was frightened that the people would gobble up all of Moab’s resources since they were so numerous.
The King sent messengers to a local prophet named Balaam requesting his help to put a curse on these people. Balaam asked God what to do and was told, you may go with these messengers but you may not curse the Israelites for they are blessed by Me.
Balaam set off on his donkey with the King’s messengers.
God became angry after all, that Balaam was going and sent an angel to block his path. The donkey saw the angel but Balaam did not. The donkey swerved and so Balaam hit the donkey. The donkey pressed up against a fence to avoid the angel and again Balaam beat the donkey. Finally the donkey sat down in the road and Balaam hit him again. Then, God opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey spoke saying, “ What have I done that you have beaten me these 3 times? Have I not served you all day ? Am I in the habit of doing this to you?!” And Balaam answered, “No.”
And then God opened up Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel blocking the path. He then understood why the donkey had acted so. The angel told him that he could go on but that he could only speak what the angel tells him.
Balaam eventually meets up with King Balak who shows him the Israelite encampment. Balak tells Balaam to curse the people but when Balaam speaks, words of blessing emerge instead. Balak takes Balaam to three different vantage points to see the camp and each time Balaam pours forth new blessings, the last of which contains the famous words still sung today: Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, your holy dwellings,Yisrael.
In our story we have 3 primary characters; Balak the King who is motivated by fear and thereby blinded to the truth of God’s plan; Balaam the Seer who is unable to see; and the simple donkey who is the only one able to apprehend the truth of a Godly presence before him. Is it not often the case that a child or an animal, without the interference of ego and self interest, can perceive the truth of a situation or of a person more accurately than an adult?
Like Balak and Balaam, we are all able to perceive only a portion of the whole truth. The Piacezner Rebbe, also known as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto points out that our senses are illusory. The outer forms of everything are always changing but “the truth of everything lies in its inner being.” Our challenge is to elevate our vision, our ability to see that inner essence.
These days our nation and our communities have become deeply divided and polarized over many issues. We are quick to anger and to judge. For many of us, some lifelong relationships have frayed and in some cases have completely dissolved over political disputes, each side convinced that they possess the truth and that the other is blind.
The spiritual challenge of our day is to develop the humility to recognize that we each hold only a portion of the truth. We are being asked to open up our inner vision, a deeper level of seeing in order to recognize the inner value of the other. We are being challenged to stay in respectful relationship with those whose views and beliefs are divergent from one’s own. But more than that, I believe our challenge is to find the inner essence of truth in the opposing point of view. This is no easy task, which is why it is called Spiritual Work. It requires a kind of constant inner vigilance to become aware of when we are beginning to shut out the other person and attempt, at those moments, to remain open.
If we can do this-myself included, if we can stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree; if we can humble ourselves to acknowledge that we each hold a portion of truth, then perhaps we can create the kind of community where harmony and peace may dwell.
When Balaam stood on the mountain and looked down at the Israelite camp below he saw the tents of the tribes arranged like flower petals around a sacred center, the Tabernacle. Each tribe camped under its own banner, proclaiming its individuality; each situated in a different direction maintaining a unique perspective yet All focused on Holiness at the core.
And when Balaam saw this he spoke these words of blessing : Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael- How lovely are your tents Jacob, your holy dwellings Yisrael.
How beautiful it is when we respectfully disagree, when each unique voice is honored, when we each contribute our partial truth to the communal tapestry of life. Then we create a space for the holy to dwell with us.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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