Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Balak (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at July 2006.

“How Goodly are Your Tents”—at the Head of the Column

It is difficult to isolate any specific mitzvah in this parashah. I will therefore begin with an almost trivial, technical halakhah, which we will then see to have far-reaching implications. Some decades ago, during a period when synagogues were fearful of thefts of Torah scrolls, my congregation decided to call upon an organization called Makhon Ot to help protect our scrolls by registering them in a central data base, in which the unique characteristics of each Torah scroll was recorded. In addition to the obvious external features—the height of the scroll, the number of rows in each column, the type of skin used (kelaf or gevil), the style of writing, and various miscellaneous features—each Sefer Torah had a unique “fingerprint.” This was based upon the fact that the verse Mah tovu (“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob”—Num 24:5), in this week’s Torah portion, always appears at the top of a column. The “fingerprint” of the Sefer Torah is thus taken by placing a ruler 10 cm. to the left of the beginning of that phrase, and recording the first ten letters in a vertical line going straight down from that point. In every sefer this combination of letters is different and unique.

The actual “layout” of the Torah scroll, the manner in the sofer writes it, the size of the script, the width of its columns, is left to the scribe’s discretion (notwithstanding that there is a fairly common “standard” model, with 248 columns, that serves as the basis for the Tikkun Korim used by readers in preparing to layn). However, there are six places in the Torah where the column must begin with a specific phrase or letter. Taken together, these spell the phrase ביה שמו (“in He whose name is Yah”; Ps 68:5); they are: בראשית (Gen 1:1; the very beginning of Torah, which is obviously at the top of the first column); יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך (Gen 49:8; Jacob’s blessing of Judah, the progenitor of future royalty); הבאים אחראיהם בים (Exod 14:28; the beginning of the column containing the Song of the Sea, written in a special format suggestive of alternate overlapping rows of bricks; is this perhaps meant to be reminiscent of the Egyptian servitude?): שמר לך (Exod 34:11; the beginning of a brief group of laws that follows immediately upon the Thirteen Divine Qualities); מה טובו (as already mentioned); ואעידה בם את השמים ואת הארץ (Deut 31:28; several lines before Song of Moses, set in two parallel columns, but not completed on one page). It is interesting that four of these six passages are poetic ones.

This custom is mentioned in the Rema’s glosses on Yoreh Deah 273.6 (cf. Minhat Shay & Da’at Kedoshim), and may be traced back to the Ashkenazic pietists of the twelfth or early thirteenth century. Perhaps it is related to the idea, current at that time, that the Torah in its entirety is in some sense the mystical name of God; hence, these columns spell out a phrase relating to God’s Holy Name. (I wish to thank my friend, the sofer Rabbi Akiva Garber, for illuminating this subject.)

Turning to the subject matter of our parasha: it is unique in that it might be described as the only “non-Jewish” parashah in the Torah—one which portrays the world and the Jewish people within it from the viewpoint of those outside—i.e., Balak king of Moab, and the sorcerer Balaam son of Beor. There is an interesting dynamic here of inside-outside: perhaps through the eyes of the outsider we are able to see more clearly the nature and uniqueness of the Jewish people.

Two important points here. First, that Jewish peoplehood is part and parcel of Jewish identity, if not its very core; Jews are not religionists in the conventional sense of belonging to a particular church or sect. This conception lies at the heart of a movement like Zionism, as well as, for example, the notion of Jewish history as encompassing not only religious thought and jurisprudence, or even culture in the literary sense, but the concrete geopolitical and demographic aspects of the life of a human grouping over the centuries. This conception also lies at the heart of the current dispute in Israel regarding the nature of giyyur, conversion to Judaism. Is the proselyte primarily one who adopts a certain set of beliefs and practices, as seems to be implied by the Haredi position? Or is he/she primarily an adopted son or daughter of the Jewish people/family—or perhaps even one who is literally reborn as a Jew upon immerging from the waters of the mikveh, which are described as analogous to the womb of a Jewish mother, and vice versa? This latter approach underlies the religious-zionist approach, and I believe it to be closer to the classical understanding of giyyur.

Secondly, Jews have an ambiguous relation to the Gentile world. Already in the first of Bilaam’s three blessings he utters the words (which became the title of a well-known book by Yaakov Herzog), “Behold, they are a people that dwells alone” (Num 23:9). Jews are distinct, apart, separated from the other nations of the world; at times (or shall we say, often?) the object of hatred; always inspiring a certain curiosity, a sense of strangeness and anomaly. This parasha, along with the first half of Vayishlah, with its struggle between Yaakov and Esau, have been taken as paradigmatic for relations between Jews and the Roman empire, the Christian Church, and Western or non-Jewish culture generally.

Turning to this specific verse: there is an interesting Rabbinic interpretation (Bava Batra 60a) quoted here by Rashi: “’How goodly are thy tents’—that their openings are not situated opposite one another.” In other words, there is a certain insistence upon the privacy of the home of each family. In the Talmud, this appears in the context of hezek re’iyah—the idea that there is a certain harm caused a person merely by knowing that others are able to see into his private space. How different this is from the modern style of middle and lower-middle class housing, where windows are often placed directly opposite one another! Here, too, there seems to be a certain tension or balance between inside and outside, between the spheres of the public and the private: Klal Yisrael, the congregation or people as a whole serves as the basis of the covenant with God and the focus of religious worship, whether in the synagogue or, as here, in the Tabernacle; and then there is the intimate life of the family, in which man and woman, parents and children, live their own individual personal lives in a sanctified way.

This is a point that has been forgotten at various times in history. The great ideological movements of the twentieth century—Communism, fascism, and the various kinds of national liberation movements, including Zionism—called upon the individual to give his all for the cause. In the Soviet Union, excessive interest in family life was condemned as bourgeois; romance and sexuality were frowned upon and subordinated to the cause. Youth movements educated young people to think in terms of the group, to engage in “collective thinking.” In Nazi Germany, the woman’s role was to breed as many sons as possible for the Faterland. And it would seem that milder forms of such thinking existed even here in Israel, during the early days of the State.

In reaction to this, the pendulum has swung today to the opposite extreme: we live in an age of rampant individualism; juridical thinking seems to focus upon individual rights, at times at the expense of the public weal; on the Left, the “politics of identity” has supplanted the struggle for basic social justice, so that those who once championed the working class are now the advocates of individual rights. To me, it seems clear that excessive individualism is as much a threat to human dignity and a decent, humane culture as is the other excess (with God’s help, we shall elaborate upon this theme at greater length in the near future). A brief postscript: I continue to be puzzled by Hazal’s condemnation of Bilaam, referring to him as ha-Rasha, the evil Bilaam, even after he seemingly accepted God’s authority, and humbly, even reverently, spoke His words. Likewise, in the midrash in which Job, Jethro and Bilaam advise Pharaoh, Bilaam is the “bad guy”; elsewhere, there are even suggestions that he had an unnatural sexual connection with his famous she-ass. Why are the Sages so down on him? There is even a passage in this Shabbat’s reading from Pirkei Avot contrasting the “disciples of Abraham our Father” with those of “the Evil Bilaam” (m. Avot 5.23; I cannot expound upon this at present, but see my essay “Bilam and Human Decency” at HY V: Balak = Balak [Rambam]).


Chapter Five

This chapter, as mentioned last time around (Bamidbar), is organized around a series of sayings based upon numbers: mostly, ten, seven, four. We shall skip number seven for now, and focus on four. Four, perhaps more than any other number, represents symmetry and balance: it is two, the first even number, raised to the next highest power. In religious symbolism, we have the mandala of ancient India; the four gospels and the “four-square” hermeneutics of medieval Christianity; and the four levels of interpretation (PaRDe”S) in Judaism—not to mention the four cups, the four sons, etc.

In this chapter, fours (§§13-19) are used mostly as a way of presenting alternatives to a situation in which there are two variables, each one of which entails two possible options: e.g., a person may be either stingy or generous, and this may be the case with regard to himself or to others; he may learn easily or with difficulty, and may retain his knowledge well or poorly; he may anger easily, or only after great provocation, and may be appeased in like fashion. In all these cases, the number of permutations and combinations of all options are four in number; these may be represented schematically as AA, AB, BA, BB. Each mishnah here has a different subject (generosity, anger, study, charity, and “those who go to the Study House”), the mishnah presents each option, and then renders judgment on each one in one or two words. We shall discuss here only the first one in the series:

5.14. There are four characters among people: One who says, ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ is a mediocre character, and some say, this was the quality of Sodom. One who says, ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is an ignorant person [lit., am ha-aretz]. ‘Mine is yours and yours is yours’ is pious. ‘Yours is mine and mine is mine’ is evil.

The last two options are the easiest to understand: one who is generous to a fault, who sees the need of the other person and shares his own wealth with him without rendering accounts, who gives the other the proverbial “shirt off his back,” is the pious soul, the exemplary religious person. He sees his own belongings as not really belonging, but as something temporarily ion his domain, as a kind of pledge from God with which to do mitzvot. But, one must hasten to add, the hasid is not the normative Jew. As Gershom Scholem put it in his essay “Three Types of Jewish Piety”: “The radical Jew who, in trying to follow the spiritual call, goes to extremes… the enthusiast, who isn’t deterred by bourgeois considerations… Whatever he doss, he does in a spirit of spontaneous exuberance and of supererogation; that is, far beyond the requirements of duty” (On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, 184-185).

Similarly, one who says “it’s all mine” is clearly an evil type, who does not even respond to the cries of his fellow human being, but wants everything, or as much as possible—all the wealth, all the pleasure, all the goods, all the women—for himself. He is the supreme egotist.

The second case in our mishnah, the one who says “what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours” is considered a fool. He is the person who is not only unaccustomed to think seriously about abstract principles, but does not even consider the long-range consequences of practical measures. If he were to have his way, if the very concept of private property were to be broken down, the end result would be anarchy and chaos. While Hazal of course did not know and could not have imagined the state socialist movements of the twentieth century, the goal of true socialism, of complete sharing of wealth in an equal way among all members of society, is one which to date has never been realized in human society (unless in some primitive society in hoary antiquity). Unlike the idealism of certain latter-day ideological anarchists, the end result has been shown as more likely to be violence and the domination of the strong over the weak.

Finally, the initial case brought in this mishnah: one who says “mine is mine and yours in yours.” On the face of it, this is the norm, the actual situation in real life: each person owns whatever he owns, whatever he has accumulated through his labor over the course of a lifetime, or what his parents have inherited to him. Each person tends his own garden, worries about himself and those closest to him. Yet this is at best a “mediocre quality” or even “the quality of Sodom”—of the corrupt city of those who were “very evil and sinful before God.” The Jewish ideal is thus found somewhere between the bourgeois attitude of self-satisfaction combined with indifference and apathy towards the other, and complete anarchy and the breakdown of all property law. The ideal is a sense of fellowship with one’s fellow human, of responsibility radiating outward from one’s family to the community and to the world as a whole.


Blogger zdub said...

I continue to be puzzled by Hazal’s condemnation of Bilaam

Read R. Leibtag and you will be puzzled no longer!

3:57 PM  

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