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Congregation Or Shalom
835 Darby Paoli Road
Berwyn, PA 19312
Tel: 610-644-9086


Kami Knapp Schechter

Andrew Levin

Education Director:
Larisa Averbakh

Office Manager:
Lauren Porter

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Dvars July 19 2019 and July 20 2019: Balak


Dvar: July 19th

So a funny thing happened at the river the other day. (I promise this is not a cheesy joke). As some of you may know I am an avid rower. On Wednesday morning, my squad was practicing as normal. I row in a quad (a 4 seater boat) and skull (use two oars and not one). We were flying down the river when our coach stops us and says: I need Kami and Yonca to switch seats. Let me explain a sculling boat. 

Boats or shells were traditionally made from wood, but are now almost exclusively fabricated from carbon fibre and plastic (eg. kevlar). They are about 24 inches wide, and about 15/ 20 feet long. A small fin is fitted at the bottom for stability. Seats are fitted with wheels that roll on tracks called slides. So there isn’t much room to move. The entire boat probably weighs about 250- 300 lbs. Not much between the rower and the water.

So Yonca, who is in the back seat of the quad and myself, in the second seat from the front of the boat, are told we need to switch seats, in the middle of Schuykill. Yonca jumps on the coach’s boat while I’m told I need to crab walk on small ridges (about 4 inches wide) over my teammate in the third seat. She’s lying completely flat while I’m trying to crab walk over her. This is a real thing in rowing, it’s called hot seating.

From the minute I was told I needed to move to the back seat I told myself I was going to flip the boat (almost impossible to do in a quad). I turn around and start crab-walking and as I’m halfway there I panic. My eyes literally go from seeing all around me to narrowing in on the thin rails I’m trying to walk. My teammates and coach are telling me, keep going, don’t panic, lower your weight to steady the boat. But the minute my vision narrows I don’t listen to a word they say and I start seeing that the boat will flip. 

What do you think happened?

Why am I talking about an awkward and challenging task which happened on the river? What does this have to do with Judaism, let alone the parshat hashavua? A lot actually.

This week we read of Balak who sets out to curse the Israelites because he is afraid of their imminent invasion. Balak (the King of Moab) sends Balaam (his origins are unknown but he is said to be a non-Jew who specialized in divination) to curse the Israelites. As Balaam is riding his loyal donkey an angel is sent to block the road. But only the donkey sees the angel. The donkey attempts three times to avoid the angel but Balaam assumes the donkey is misbehaving and so he beats the animal. Magically, the donkey speaks to Bilaam saying: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Have I ever led you astray before?” Bilaam admits his donkey has never taken him down the wrong path and suddenly the angel is revealed to Bilaam. 

The story continues and in the end, Bilaam, while looking over a part of the Israelite camp, refuses to curse the Israelites and actually gives us our famous line and blessing: Mah Tovu o’halecha Yaakov (How good are your tents, Jacob). 

What is the connection here? How is my story of rowing and the story of Bilaam similar?

Bilaam narrowed his focus. He set out to curse the Israelites so he would be rewarded, lucratively by Balak. He set his focus on the sole task of getting to the Israelites to curse them. As he rode the donkey he ignored her clues, he failed to ask himself why his donkey was acting differently, he went so far as to beat her in order to fulfill his task. I did the same. As I positioned myself for a crab walk I narrowed my focus on the thin ridges and therefore my imminent fall. I failed to listen to the guidance of those around me, those who may have been seeing the “angel” on the river. I lost my wide perspective and therefore cut myself off from those around me. 

So what do you think happens in my story? Do you think I was blessed like Bilaam finally blesses the Israelites? Do you think I reached the back seat without flipping? You’re right. No, the boat flipped. Just as Bilaam stooped so low as to beat the donkey, I did the thing you are not supposed to do in rowing: I admitted defeat and almost, in a way, rolled myself into the river. Two of my teammates went with me and we were all angry as we swam around in the Schuykill. But, as I was swimming and looking at my teammates and coach we looked at one another and just started hysterically laughing. My vision immediately widened and I thought to myself, sure I brought my teammates into the water but with my widened perspective I felt the blessing of connection. I realized that  these women were my family, and we were literally in the river together and having a great time! I was able to feel the blessing of my coach and her unwavering patience and support. And I was thankful for being able to receive her expertise so we could actually flip the boat and get back in. 

When we narrow our perspectives we miss so much. We miss the blessings around us. We self-sabotage what we fear. 

I’d like you to reflect on a time when your vision was narrowed. What was the outcome? What did you miss? When your perspective widened did you see the blessing?

Dvar: July 20th

Balak, Bilaam, and the talking donkey is an odd story within this week’s parsha. We are in the midst of leadership changeover, Israelite uprising and sinning, and about to enter the promised land. And amongst all this, we get a story about two non-Jews: one king, one sorcerer, and a talking donkey. There are no Jewish characters in the story unless you count G-d. 

Last week’s parsha ended with the Israelites setting up camping close to Moab. G-d tells Moses they need to attack in order to get the land. There is a small connection between last week’s parsha and this week’s: Balak is the king of Moab. Our perspective switches from being within the Israelite camp to the perspective of someone who will be defeated by them. Why this turn in perspective? (ask congregation)

There are a few theories as to why the turn in perspective and why we have this odd story:

1: It’s intended to be a comedic story:

The Five Books of Miriam writes: (read pg. 228 “the sages” paragraph 1)

I kind of like this theory. I’m imagining the sages sitting around, working intensely for years to write down centuries of an oral tradition. They are probably analyzing, arguing, and are so serious making sure everything is accurately recounted. And then amidst all of this serious concentration, Sage “Ploni” says: “Wouldn’t it be really funny if we just put in a random story about a talking donkey?” We take our texts very serious but farse and funny is not foreign to our sages. In the Talmud, the sages decreed that we must drink until we can’t tell Hamen and Achaverosh from one another. That we should jeer and poke fun at Haman’s name. The Talmud is replete with wordplays and humorous folk stories. (I know of many, so if you’re interested let me know)

So, yes, maybe this was a late night delirious moment inserted while cataloguing the oral law. Or maybe G-d, G-d’s self, gave this very story in jest to Moses at Mt. Sinai? Talmud Avodah Zara says: 

And the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and makes sport, i.e., laughs or rejoices, as it is stated: “He that sits in heaven makes sport, the Lord has them in derision” (Psalms 2:4)…doesn’t Rav Yehuda say that Rav says: There are twelve hours in the day. During the first three, the Holy One, Blessed be He, sits and engages in Torah study…During the fourth three hours, He sits and makes sport with the leviathan, as it is stated: “There is leviathan, whom You have formed to sport with” (Psalms 104:26)…Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak says in explanation: He makes sport with His creations, just as He sports with the leviathan…

  1. Another theory is that this entire story was a dream of Moses. This theory explains how we jump from being in the midst of the Israelite encampment to a story which doesn’t involve one Jew. The idea that this story is a dream is compelling. I read about this theory in an essay by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, a teacher and director of the Block/ Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts at JTS. Her words are better than I can summarize: 

“Perhaps the story is instead a dream Moses dreams. One hint of this is that “Balaam comes from Peor (Num. 22:5), a word used for dream interpretation (e.g., in the Joseph narrative). Indeed, both the narrative context and several details (too numerous to list here) strongly suggest this is dreamwork, incorporating and transforming elements of Moses’s experiences, anxieties, doubts, and fears.

(Moses may be asking): “Am I a true prophet and servant of God, following in Abraham’s footsteps, or merely an unworthy parody?”

One need not be a student of Freud to connect such doubts to a dream about a “heathen” prophet, who

  • sees the Israelites only from afar, and whose name (Balaam) suggests belo am—“one without a people” (see BT Sanhedrin 105a);
  • is told by God to go forward and is then stymied by impassable roadblocks;
  • is revealed as a buffoon when he is bested by a talking donkey; and
  • repeatedly offers words which fail to “take.”

…Or perhaps Moses identifies even more closely with the donkey, a mute creature made to speak by God, whose complaint of being mistreated reads perfectly as a fantasy dialogue between Moses and God after Moses has struck the rock:

Donkey: “Why have you beaten me?”

Balaam: “Because you mocked me. Would that I had a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.”

Donkey: “Am I not your donkey that you have ridden forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you?” (Num. 22:28–30)

Moses: “Why have you beaten me?”

God: “Because you failed to have faith in Me, and to sanctify Me publicly, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the Land.” (Num. 20:12)

Moses: “Am I not Your servant that You have used forever until today? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to You?”

Do either of these theories resonate with you? Do you have another reason as to why this seemingly random story is within our text?