Who are you?

Balak - Who are you?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9

"And he took up his parable…" (Numbers 24:3)

Sometimes a midrash addresses a matter of law, or halachah, as does this week’s midrash. It still helps to understand what is happening in the portion, however. In this case, Balaam is standing before the nation of Israel, and about to bless them with the words that form part of our morning liturgy: "Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishk’notecha, Yisrael" – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!

The sages weren’t too happy about an "idolater" speaking with G!d and getting to give such a rich blessing, which is at least in part the reason for this midrash. But first, a word about observance. As M’ Shoshannah notes in her sidebar, we all choose levels of observance, and neither she nor I would want to tell people what they should or should not observe. But it helps to understand what is going on by reading the midrash "as if" one were fairly observant in their practice. That disclaimer being offered, let’s proceed.

The next thing to consider is which perspective to take in regards to how we will hear the midrash. This week, M’ Shoshannah and I draw entirely different lessons from the same midrash, which is one of several different midrashim drawn from the same text. What further evidence does one need of the joys of study! Now, open your hearts, and listen:

Halachah: If a man has eaten without previously washing his hands, does he incur a penalty? Our Rabbis have taught: Washing the hands before a meal is optional; after a meal it is obligatory. An incident is related that during the period of religious persecution a certain Israelite shopkeeper used to cook ritually clean meat as well as the flesh of swine and sell them, so that it might not be suspected that he was a Jew. His practice was that if anyone came into his shop to eat and did not wash his hands, he would know that he was an idolater and would place before him the flesh of swine, but if a man washed his hands and recited the blessing he would know that he was an Israelite and would give him clean meat to eat. Once a Jew came in to eat and did not wash his hands, so he thought that he was an idolater and placed swine’s flesh before him. The man ate and did not say the Grace after Meals. When he came to settle the account with him for the bread and the meat the shopkeeper said to him: ‘I have a claim on you for such-and-such a sum on account of the meat you have eaten, for each piece costs ten manehs.’ Said the other: ‘Yesterday I got it for eight and to-day you want to take ten from me, do you?’ The shopkeeper answered him: ‘The piece you have eaten is from the swine.’ When he told him this his hair stood on end, and he fell into a great fright and said to him under his breath: ‘I am a Jew and you have given me swine’s flesh!’ Said the shopkeeper to him: ‘A plague on you! When I saw that you ate without washing your hands and without a blessing I thought you were an idolater!’ Hence the Sages have taught: The neglect of the water before the meal led to his eating the flesh of swine; that of the water after the meal killed the soul.

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XX:21

If this midrash is about something else beside the importance of keeping kashrut, what could that topic be? This is a critical question to ask of every midrash, of every bit of text, of every story. We absolutely must understand the plain meaning of the text, but we should also be ready to turn it and turn it, and discover new, additional meanings as well. We must also bear in mind that no one meaning is the "correct" or "better" meaning: they live in harmony with each other, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes contradicting, just like our holy language Hebrew does with its letters, words and phrases.

So what else is this story about? It is about knowing and being known, about communication and the clash of expectations and assumptions.

Each of us, try as we may to do otherwise from time to time, lives at the center of the universe. We see the world through our own eyes, we know that what we know is correct. While we carry the intellectual understanding that others may have a different opinion, or that they actually see the world in a different way, this is a difficult perspective for us to maintain for any lengthy period of time: we just don’t seem to be "wired" for it.

I have never seen this condition rendered as eloquently as I did on one teenager’s t-shirt at the state fair: "As a matter of fact, the world does revolve around me!" Cute, but oh so true.

In our midrash, each of the characters knows what the other is: the butcher knows he is serving a non-Jew, and the customer knows the butcher knows he is Jewish. How have they come to their conclusions? Because of the actions they have observed in the other: the butcher sees someone who does not maintain the same level of observance as he, and the customer has (in the past) received kosher meat for the appropriate price without having had to ask for it.

The moment of revelation is world-shattering for each of them: things are not what they seemed; what is true is false; assumptions are shattered and expectations fail. These moments, in the most extreme of which we question not only what we know but who we are, are extremely rare and extremely powerful – and decidedly unsettling. In fact, Gregory Bateson, the cyberneticist who studied how complex systems learn, called this "Level III learning" – which he described as "spiritual experiences."

How could something so uncomfortable, unsettling be spiritual? Because these are moments when we are yanked from the center of the universe and forced to encounter the Other. Such encounters consume our attention, our comfort, and at times, momentarily our "self."

How do we approach and attempt to understand these moments? Certainly with awe and trembling – we are, indeed wired for these responses. But what about our attitude: will we embrace them, ready to let a new "us" emerge from the encounter? Or will we recoil from them, crying "sin!" and "foul!" and wrapping the old and familiar around us as tightly as we can?

Our instincts, our "wiring," will encourage us to the latter. But I believe our souls, that spark of the Divine that resides within us, will lead us to the former – and to new worlds, as yet unknown and unseen.

May we each be blessed with the terrifying moments of encountering the unexpected, and the strength to embrace them.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.