Parshas Balak — Bilam notices some of our shining points

In this week’s Torah portion two evil leaders and two wicked nations join forces to try to find a solution to “the Jewish problem”.  Anti-Semitism is as old as the Jewish people itself.  Hatred’s impact, however, only goes as far as G-d allows it to go.  Hitlers may come and go, may kill and maim, but G-d wills our nation to survive and so survive we do.

Here in this scenario, Balak commissions Bilam to curse the Jewish nation, to try to get G-d Himself to join their unholy cabal in trying to wipe out the Jews.  Ah, but they underestimated the love of G-d for His people.  And, therefore, despite their best efforts to bring the force of G-d on their side (by offering sacrifices to G-d and by trying to time the curses to a time when G-d might be prone to punishing), their efforts fail.

Three times, Bilam looks out at the Jewish nation, opens his mouth to curse them out, and pours out blessings and positive prophecies about the wonderful Jews.

The first time, Bilam exclaims[23:10]  “Mee Manah Afar Yaakov” who can count the dust of Yaakov.”  The easy explanation is that the Jews are numerous, proliferate, having these wonderfully large families.  However, there is another layer to what he is saying – the dust of Yaakov evokes the memory of our forefather Yaakov struggling with the angel of Esav way back when, the classic fight between good and evil.  We are told that, as Yaakov and the angel tussled, the dust rose up.  You envision the struggle, dust swirling, dust kicked up, as good tries, and succeeds in vanquishing bad.  Bilam, looking at Yaakov’s descendants notices, “who can count the dust” of this holy nation?  How many times do we struggle with our Yetzer Harah [evil inclination] and overcome our sinful desires, pin down the angel of evil?  Many times in the course of the day, for G-d gave us 613 commandments, forcing us to have to tussle with our desires and “raise the dust.”  Bilam is impressed.  The Jews are a nation out to struggle against baser desires, always in perpetual battle against evil.

Bilam then says wistfully, “May my soul die the death of the righteous and let my end be like his.”  Spiritually lazy people want to end up good, without choosing the good way all their life.  They want to live like wicked people but die like good ones.  It doesn’t work that way – to end up dying with dignity, you have to live with it.

Bilam moves location and tries again to curse the Jews.  Once again, he opens his mouth and, instead of curses, out come blessings.

[23:24] “He rises like a lion cub and doesn’t go to sleep until he consumes his prey.”  Bilam is saying that from morn until night we are out grabbing opportunities for spirituality and defeating our bad desires.  We rise with a Modeh Ani, with a Tallis and Tefillin and with morning prayers.  We don’t go to sleep until a full day, and with the words of Shema on our lips.  Just like the lion cub bounds up and heads into the day, a Jew arises and heads to pray and do good deeds.  All day, from getting up until going to sleep, our nation is given opportunities to score.

Bilam moves again (third try) and again blessings come out.  “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov” how beautiful are your dwelling places Yaakov.  Bilam waxed poetic at how the Jews camped in the desert and we are told,  “Ra’ah degalam mesudarim v’she’ayn pischayhem mechuvanim zeh k’neged zeh” He saw that all the banners were in order and one tent opening did not face the other.  We always were taught that Bilam was amazed that one person did not snoop at what was going on in another person’s life.  One family did not try to see what another family had.  When that happens, when folks don’t peer into others’ windows, you have less jealousy.  Yet, we need to examine what made the Jews able to pull that off.  After all, don’t we all have a curiosity about someone else’s life and circumstances (hence the reality TV craze)?   The answer is that we see the first half of what Bilam saw “ra’ah degalim mesudarim” he saw their banners in order.  Each tribe had a different banner among the nation.  Each person realized he/she had a unique mission in this world.  And because folks were so focused on trying to figure out and raise up their own banners, to work on their own self-identity and mission in life, therefore, they had no desire or time to peer into other folks’ windows.   We see that when we get our own banners in order, we don’t look in on someone else’s life.  Best way to avoid jealousy is to look at our own plate and job.

The last thing I’d like to share about this week’s Parshas is the fact that Bilam kept moving places, switching locations.  We are taught our forefathers always picked the same place to pray, using the same location time and time again.  Bilam kept moving his spot when trying to accomplish his work.  This is because Bilam was, once again, proven to be a spiritually lazy person.  A focused person looks internally when he isn’t getting results he wants.  The forefathers, if their prayers weren’t answered, did not blame the location or some other external factor.  They decided the fault must be in them, and so they worked on themselves and tried to aim for higher levels of spirituality, coming back to the same external place with a new internal identity, an enhanced personality.  Bilam, on the other hand, did not want to work on himself.  Instead of looking inwards, he blamed his lack of success on outside factors, namely, in this case, location.  How many times do we do that?  It is the fault of everyone other than ourselves when things aren’t going our way.  Kids go off the Derech and blame every outside factor.  Yes, it is true, outside factors can damage our insides.  Yet, our job is to work on those insides, not trying to hang blame on everyone other than us.

No more blaming outside factors for where we are spiritually, for we see it is the trait of Bilam.  Rather, you and I, must learn to focus all our battles and changes inwards, to work out who we are, what we must do, and how to change ourselves so we merit to accomplish our mission.

Have a great week, one and all, focusing on our own little slice of universe and our mission within the greater universe…and kicking up that dust…always kicking up that dust!

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Dog and Perek Shira

reprinting, since one part of Bil’am’s stream of praises memorialized in this week’s Parshas is that we are a nation of dogs.


Continuing on in Perek Shira…from every force of nature, from every created thing, we can learn how to connect with G-dliness.  Here is the dog’s lesson.

Wag goes the tail, wide goes the eye

Up goes the ear, when the dog’s owner goes by

Woof, Bark or Arf, there’s always a barked hello

And where the Master goes, dogs like to follow

Dogs grovel and bow and know their owner

But even more they recognize their Creator

Lick goes the tongue as the dog shows its love

Shouldn’t mankind show devotion to the Master up Above?

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When the Donkey Brays and When the Stupid Speak – Friendly Fire in Speech

You and I like to believe that we are of the saner side of the human race, those who do not want to inflict pain and harm on another person.  Yet, often, we end up doing just that, through thoughtless remarks.

In war, one of the great tragedies is a phenomenon called friendly fire.  How does it happen?  Through human error.  Without realizing, soldiers of the same side will exchange fire with their comrades.   There are many horrible travesties of justice and human cruelty in the world.  However, what is really sad is when harm comes about innocuously through careless “friendly fire”.  Talking about each other with careless comments, “oh her, she’s such a spoiled princess”, not realizing you might have just ruined a job prospect for her.  Making insensitive comments in speech, like rattling off something about your happy marriage to someone who is divorced, and leaving that person to cry all night.  Like being snippety or uppity, just because your mood called for such an attitude, not realizing you were mortally hurting another person’s ego.

I’ve collected some doozies of things folks have said on dates, of all places.  I call it the “Vayiftach es Pee Ha’asan[1]” file.  Like the time a guy told a girl (who incidentally was not past child-bearing age), “You know I don’t want another child, so that should be perfect for you, because let’s face it, you’re old and probably won’t have children.”  Or another brilliant bloke, who while walking with a girl he was trying to woo, explained that “he didn’t want a gorgeous girl, anyway.”  Not because they were being malicious.  But because they were being stupid.  Yet, killing is not allowed with stupidity as a defense.  Neither is hurting someone with the words.  In fact, we are forbidden to indulge in Ona’as Devorim – we cannot speak something that will hurt another.

One place no one should ever have to go to is Memorial Sloan Kettering, a hospital in Manhattan that deals exclusively with patients with cancer.  Walking in, one meets Jews from every end of the Judaism spectrum.  And these folks learn to speak softly to each other, to think and weigh their words, to hug and kiss each other, to worry together.  It is sensitivity, but borne out of suffering.

Can’t we learn to be so loving and careful, so full of sensitivity through our own efforts and not by being pushed through tragedy to that point?  We could, if we only did as Pirket Avot instructs us to by ensuring that Kavod Chavercha, the dignity of our friend, should be as dear to us as our own.

[1] And He opened the mouth of the donkey


For more information about Ona’as Devorim, you can read here:

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Writing Gone to Pot – Ethical Dilemna About Parnassah

Repost because someone asked me yesterday why there are certain jobs I wouldn’t take…

I signed up for a freelance writing assignment.  And got assigned a gig on how to grow marijuana.  Okay. Deep breath (not of hashish, silly, but of oxygen, sweet air).  Now what?!

Okay, a few steps backward to bring you to my present.  I like writing and would love to earn my keep with writing, which, as most writers will tell you, is not that easy.  There are a few sites to match writers with assignments, a kind of writing bazaar. A bizarre bazaar, as you will shortly see.

Most times the jobs go to someone overseas who will bid on a project with these profundities:   “Esteemed Sir, beg I to write many superfluous big words from university I learned, 500 articles of consist 500 words $10, SEO ready copy can I write you fast.”  Since most native English speakers living in Western world realities will not and cannot string along that many articles for the price of a bagel and a coffee, writers’ bazaars are very hard to find competitive.

Yet, I finally got a gig.  Someone appreciated the fact my pitch to them was written in comprehensible English and wanted such fare.  Yay!  A gig.

Then, the assignment came.  I was to write many articles to be featured in different places, which articles had to be constructed in a way to float them to the top of the Google pool and be easily found and read.  The topic assigned was how to grow pot.

My first response was to rub my eyes and stare at my computer screen.  The assignment stayed in place – write articles on how to grow marijuana.  Interesting question, is it legal?

Google quest begins.  There is nothing illegal as far as I can see in writing an article on how to grow an illegal substance.  In fact, there are many articles of that nature.  There are even places where you can buy growers’ supplies.  No jail time would loom imminent were I to take the job; but did I want to tell blockheads how to grow the vacant brain recreational choice of fare?

Ethical question – should I use my writing skills to promote something of which I don’t approve?

Then came the reckoning, where I realized I had a need for clarification of my moral parameters.  I’m neither against the legalization of pot nor, in fact, am I opposed to the legalization of prostitution.  I think much of what is considered immoral doesn’t make logical sense.  A person is allowed to walk into a bar and get smashed but cannot smoke weed, which doesn’t make for a logical explanation.  Any woman can randomly tumble into bed with a stranger she picked up at a bar, so long as she doesn’t take money for the encounter.  Logical to you?  To me, it isn’t.  Either you believe random coupling is immoral…or you don’t.  Why does money play into the equation?

Okay, so I admit I don’t see eye-to-eye with the law on the illegalities of pot.  I do see the beauty of living life with meaning and, therefore, not, like, dude, vegetating your thinking apparatus, like, peace out and all that, but I want to live more intelligently.

Which led me to not take the job.  If life is to be lived with meaning, all we do within it has to be focused and in line with our values.  If not, we are copping out to our own sense of right and wrong.  My life doesn’t include pot, nor do I want any of my loved ones smoking their brains silly.  Therefore, to get paid to promote it would be negating my own sense of propriety.   I choose not to be a donkey  moving for the sake of a carrot dangling up ahead.  I’m a human, with a sense of right and wrong, able to choose to live and work according to moral standards.

Happy pot growing, to those who choose to do so.  I’d rather grow a sense of purpose.

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Just really a lead in to get you to Rabbi Tatz’s Shiur…

After the mistake with the rock and the stick, Moshe and Aharon find out they’re not going into the Promised Land.  Yet, we find a fascinating thing happening right after that.  Moshe should now want nothing further to do with helping the Jews move closer to going to Israel.  But great people do the right thing every time.  Moshe, even though he won’t go to Israel, moves forward in helping plan and move the Jews one step closer to getting into Israel.  He isn’t jealous of those who will make it where he won’t — he will even help them get there.

Moshe sends a message to the King of Edom, reciting the history of the Jewish nation and how they are asking permission now to cross through the land of Edom to get into Israel.  The Kind of Edom says – don’t come trooping through our lands because we will kill you, if you do.

The Jews are told by Hashem to turn and not have the final show-down with Edom – that is reserved for the time of Moshiach.

Now comes Aharon’s death. Aharon is told to go with his son and Moshe to Har HaHar.  There, Aharon hands over the garments and power of Kehuna to his son Elazar.   There is a Jewish concept of Mesorah that a rebbe should leave this world having handed over leadership responsibly to the next in line so that the Jews are not left without leadership,

The Clouds of Glory which enveloped the Jews was in the merit of Aharon and now they no longer have the clouds of glory.  Verse 29 (Va’yeroo – either they saw or they feared – that Aharon was dead – some commentators said they saw and some say they feared because of the taking away of the clouds).

The Jews “ALL” mourn Aharon for 30 days.  Why was it universal and so long that they mourned Aharon?  He promoted peace.  He was forever trying to make peace between folks and so he became beloved by many.  He also used love to bring folks back to the right way.  Rather than rebuke them, he would befriend them…and they felt they had to better themselves to maintain the friendship with him.

Chapter 21:  Our enemies wait until they think we are vulnerable and they pounce.  The Can’anee nation heard there were no more protective clouds over the Jews and they attack…and lose.

Now, the Jews become depressed –they have to go a longer way to travel since Hashem told them not to go through Edom.  How was it possible that they now, after all this, so close to Israel, go through the same horrible complaining?  The Baal HaTurim explains they understood quite well that if they are not allowed to fight Edom now, there will be long stretches of horrible interactions in Jewish history to come with these wicked Edomites.  This realization led them to a sense of depression, which got them complaining, and then got them punished.  The word for depression is Atzuv which is the same root of the word atzavim (idols)  — we tend to do wrong things when we have a sense of despair, when we get to low points in our life, when we think things are hopeless or too hard.  And when we are at that low point, we even stab those who did good for us and complain about the gifts in our lives.  That is what happened here – once depressed and low, the Jews curse out the Manna!  The great gift of Manna, even that they can’t appreciate when they are depressed.

The punishment they get is instant.  Hashem sends poisonous snakes to bite random Jews who die.  The snake tastes all food the same – whatever the snake eats has one taste only.  That is the punishment for the Jews who speak against a food which had the taste of whatever the person eating wanted it to taste like.

The Jews actually this time admit to their wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.  Moshe davens for them.  When a person asks us for forgiveness, we should forgive.

The antidote for the danger:  G-d tells Moshe to create a snake figurine and put it on a tall pole – and anyone who gets bitten had to look up and see the snake on the pole and that would heal him.

First thing to note in this verse [Chapter 21: verse 8] is that the word for the pole is the word Nes which also means a miracle and could mean a banner.  Because the purpose of a miracle is to create a banner, so to speak, that points to G-d.  The word Nisayon, test – is from the same root word of Nes – because a test pushes us to our limits and shows off our commitment to G-d, just as if we would wave a banner over our heads.  To hear an amazing lecture on this, you can go here:

Now to Rashi on this verse:  “Ve’chee nachash may’mis oh mi’chayeh?  Ehluh b’zman she’hayoo Yisroel mistaklim k’lapay ma’alah oo’meshabdim es leebam la’aveehem she’bashamayim hu’yoo misrapim…”  Translation:  “Does a [sculpted] snake give life or death?  No.  It was that the entire time the Jews looked upwards and bent their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed.”

The point of anything we do is to create a bond between us and G-d.  When we end up in a bad place in life, anything we do to “look upward” and reconnect to G-d is what will make sure we are saved.

May our banners of successfully weathering our ordeals wave gaily above our heads….bringing our spectators to lift their eyes, too, heavenward!

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Parshas Chukas — Speak to the Rock

Chapter 20 in this week’s Torah weekly reading begins with the event of Miriam’s death.  One verse later, the Torah tells us “Velah haya lahem mayim” there was no water for the Jewish people.  The miraculous fount of gushing water emanating from a rock suddenly stopped, mid-gush, mid-stream, just like that.  The Power that made it come forth turned off the tap and gone was the water.  This was the first realization the nation had that the water was all in the merit of Miriam.  Forty years all drank gustily, never knowing, never thanking she whose good deeds made it possible.  Suddenly, Miriam is gone and the water is turned off.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I were trekking many miles in desert land with all my loved ones and my water would be taken from me, I’d be more than a wee bit scared.  The Jews were normal in worrying about the now-defunct water fountain.  Yet what they did with the situation was problematic.  They began bashing past kindness.  Supposing you come to my home and I feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner, set up a bed for you, give you supplies for your shower.  You might safely assume I will serve you food tomorrow too, no?  I’ve exhibited that I’m concerned about you and want to take care of you.  G-d had brought down Manna for the Jews to eat, carried them on clouds, given them a miraculous water spout.  Shouldn’t the Jews have assumed that G-d would provide for them now, too?    But they didn’t.  They assumed the worst, thought their end was near, and lashed out, “loo givanoo…” we wish we’d died way back when.  You know those lines people say, “I wish I were dead” or such stuff?  Grumbling ingrates.  If only the Jews had been smart and just prayed, gratefully, saying (as did their forefather Jacob) “Kootantee mikal hachasadim” I am smaller than all the kindness G-d has done.  G-d has done so many miracles to get me here, please G-d continue to carry me forward.  That is a fine way to daven, and should have been the approach of the Jews.

At this point in the narrative, G-d tells Moshe to “take the staff”, assemble the entire nation and go with Ahron to the rock and speak to it and have it bring forth water again.  Moshe and Aharon head to the rock, staff in hand.  Then there is a snafu.  The rock doesn’t respond right away at the first “hello” said to it.  The nation is gathered and antsy.  And Moshe lashes out at them, saying, “listen you rebellious ones!”  He then hits the rock twice and, miracle of miracles, water gushes forth, the pipeline is open again, water is in abundance.

Ah, but G-d is not pleased.  G-d tells Moshe and Aharon, “because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of all the people,” therefore, as consequence, these two great leaders will NOT lead the Jews into the promised land.  What was the sin of Moshe and Aharon and why such a harsh decree?

The commentators analyze it from every angle.  There is the angle of anger that Moshe has, lashing out at the people.  Anger is deadly, it causes many tragedies.  But that is not reason enough to understand Moshe being blocked from entry into Israel.   There is the angle that Moshe talked about personally bringing the water out, instead of coaching it in terms of G-d doing the act.  Yet, that still doesn’t make us understand why leadership was taken away from these two spiritual giants.

My mother shared with me one version of the commentators’ explanation as it pertains to leadership skills.  You think Teddy Roosevelt made up the line, “speak softly and carry a big stick”, didn’t you?  Well, my friend, Teddy borrowed the idea from here.  There are two ways to discipline and lead a nation, or a child, or a student.  There is the harsh approach – the slap, the punishment, the consequence, the do-this-or-else approach.  It does get folks into line, but there is a lack there.  G-d wanted Moshe to carry the staff, to have the ability to censure and punish if need be, but to withhold using that stick and try instead the persuasion approach, the dialogue and talking.  And because he didn’t approach the rock that way, he failed in demonstrating to the Jews that speech and dialogue could connect them and compel them to serve G-d.

You see, my friends, Torah does have punishments listed in it.  Even death!  Yet, G-d would love it if we can finally come to Torah observance with the clear idea that G-d wants to nurture us, just as the host wants to provide for the guest, and that G-d wants our very best.  He didn’t give us Torah to find ways to find us in error and to punish us.  He gave us Torah because he wants us to have life-giving, thirst-quenching, nurturing lives.

May we all learn to “speak to the rock” that is our stubborn place and get our own stubbborn wills to yield without a whack.

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Conforming to Conformity — or conforming to G-d!

For those of you not yet familiar with Herman Wouk, he is a master storyteller.  However, it is not the plays he wrote that became blockbuster movies or Broadway shows that I want to share with you today.  It is his book, This is My G-d[1].  Herman Wouk had a very holy grandfather, HaRav Mendel Leib Levine who arrived in NY from Minsk bringing his vast Seforim collection.  Rav Levine, not scared off of his Americanized grandson, pulled out a Talmud and instructed his Bronx-born-Bronx-raised-Bronx-acculturated progeny to realize “this is our work”.  The work of a Jew is to learn, to study, to keep our Mesorah alive. Through those study sessions, Herman Wouk’s soul found spiritual expression and connection.  And, within his book, This is My G-d, he shares with those not so blessed to have a solid Jewish education the whys and wherefores of Judaism. (p.29)  I cite, for I cannot write as eloquently as Mr. Wouk and it would be unfair to rob, you dear reader, of his skill:

“Not long ago, in a fashionable suburban home, I fell into a parlor discussion of religion.  I try to avoid these because they almost always end with my sitting silent while my interlocutors enthusiastically explain to me what is wrong with Judaism.  The usual gist of the explanation is that pork is unhealthy only in hot countries, that religion is a matter of ethics and not of ceremonies, and so forth.  This particular argument was pleasanter than most, because the person setting me straight was a pretty seventeen-year-old girl, a college sophomore, and it was no strain to smile at her with good humor as she went about her work.

“She had been reading sociology and was full of terms like anomy, other-directedness, acculturation, and similar jaw-breakers, which she got off with athletic ease.  The burden of her tale was that Judaism meant ritualism, and ritualism meant conformity, which was a great evil….. “The interesting thing was that my charming enlightener, while she delivered her philippic against conformity, was dressed in garb as ceremonious as a bishop’s, from the correct wrinkles in her sweater sleeves to the prescribed smudge on her saddle shoes.  She spoke her piece for autonomy in a vocabulary of the teens as rigid, as  circumscribed, as repetitious, as marked in intonation, as a litany.  Her gestures, her haircut, her paint, were wholly stylized. [ …..] “…the case is no different in intellectual circles.  I have heard sophisticated litterateurs, men of a sharply critical turn of mind, explain that the conformity of religion made it unacceptable to them.  Their dress has been as markedly literary as the girl’s was adolescent; their haircuts and their vocabularies have been no less special and predictable…. [They are] as generically uniform as one finds among the Hasidim.

“[…] The only true non-conformists are in the asylums…”                  

Readers, read it yourself, for I had to omit some parts so we can get on with this post and not reprint the amazing book here.  Do yourself a favor and try to get your hands on a copy of the book and read it in its entirety. So why am I quoting this?  Because of our Haftorah.  The Haftorah is the coronation of King Saul, the first Jewish King and the lecture given the Jewish people by the Prophet Shmuel. First, the reason why this is the Haftorah – two reasons – the first is that Shmuel Hanavee was the great-grandson of Korach, who made the mistake of thinking he was invincible because he knew Shmuel would be around in the future and, therefore, thought his life would be spared.  He erred.  We cannot make wrong decisions based on what we know about futures.  Wrong is wrong.  That is a period after that statement.  No other considerations can come into play.  Korach died.  His sons repented…and that is how Shmuel came to be in the world.  [2]  The second connecting theme from Parsha to Haftorah is the concept of us challenging G-d, ever since Adam ate that fruit.  We always think we can choose how our rituals and observance should be.  No, no, and no, again.  Korach and his followers wanted no leader when G-d said designated leaders.  Now, in history, there was a different issue.  G-d had the Jews led by a prophet…and that didn’t sit well with the Jews. They wanted to be like every other nation…and since all nations at that time had kings, they only wanted a king.  Which is why they requested one.  They got one all right…and with kings eventually came civil wars. Conformity.  Human people will always conform to something or someplace or some idea.  Even those folks in weird neighborhoods in Brooklyn (take the L train, my friend) all look the same trying to look like they are different.  Same weird piercings, same over-the-top-tattoos, same mismatched outfits – you can spot a hipster which means they conform to something though they think they are nonconformists. Therefore, we must always ask ourselves, what are we conforming to?  Let us remember to conform to G-d’s Torah and instructions.  For when we don’t, we become just another mistaken generation, swapping up a meaningful conformity to become just another, yawn, ho-hum, ordinary nothingness.  Who are you?  Who or what are you conforming to?     [1] Wouk, Herman. 1959. BackBay Books, Little, Brown & Company. [2] Potiphar’s wife is another person who erred in looking into the future and justifying her sin.  She saw she would have grandchildren with Yosef and thought that gave her license to be with him. What she saw, though, were the offspring of her adopted daughter who married Yosef.

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