A Prophet and His Talking Donkey

The Torah parasha this week is named after a non-Israelite king, Balak, who decides that the Israelite tribes are a threat to his people, the Moabites. So King Balak hires Balaam ben Be’or, a soothsayer and prophet, to go and deliver a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22: 5-7). Balaam accepts the gig; he and his talking donkey become two of the most comical or mysterious characters in the whole Torah. The G-dcast storyteller this week, Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz, formerly of San Francisco and now residing with his wife and growing family in Be’er Sheva, Israel, has given us a shorter-than-usual and very provocative commentary on this parasha.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That the only way to “explain” a talking donkey is to imagine that Balaam projects a piece of himself, some intuition coming from his “gut,” right into the mouth of his donkey. It gets even better… Balaam ends up having a conversation with his donkey, almost the way you sometimes get two parts of yourself arguing with each other (on the one hand….but on the other hand…). There is also some medical evidence that the very same cells that formed our brains when we were in our embryonic and then fetal state also formed the organs associated with our gut, such as our intestines. For more on brain gut, you can read this.

The donkey stops because he sees God’s messenger in the path in front of him, forbidding him to continue onward. And Balaam just beats him for that — witness their absurd interaction in chapter 22 verses 28-30. When Balaam himself finally hears the voice of God’s messenger, he changes direction, both metaphorically and physically.

The King and his for-hire prophet end up discussing the parameters of the instructions to curse Israel. The prophet realizes, after several encounters with the Holy One of Israel, that he cannot go against the powerful Lord of the Hebrew tribes. He knows he is going against his contract, but he ends up actually blessing the Israelites with the words…

“How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwellings oh Israel!”
Mah tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; mish’k'notekha, Yisra’el!
Numbers 24:5

…which appear in a lengthy poem of praise to the Israelites. This phrase has entered our liturgy, part of the opening morning prayers, every day…. Amazing, huh?

To recap: religiously observant Jews in the 21st century recite a line of poetry, now part of the daily prayers, ascribed to a pagan prophet whose story was captured in the Bible, dating back to perhaps the 8th century before the common era (BCE).

The story ends with King Balak being very angry. More poetry is exchanged, and, in the end, the prophet Balaam goes home and the King goes back to his despair and his wrath, never having achieved his goals of cursing the Israelites.

Chapter 25 has one more story: how the Israelites, who had just been blessed and praised by a foreign prophet, have resumed their naughty behaviors, in imitation of their pagan neighbors. And what is the crime? They go “whoring with the daughters of Moab.” They begin to engage in the cultic and sexual activities related to the worship of Baal Pe’or. Of course this behavior is not acceptable to God, and so Moshe/Moses tells his chiefs to impale the wrong-doers so that the people can be saved from idolatry.

One of these leaders, a member of the priestly tribe and the grandson of Aaron, is Pinchas/Phineas, a hyper-energized zealot who takes a spear in his hand and stabs an Israelite man, Zimri, son of Salu, chieftain of the Simeonite tribe. Zimri is caught in flagrante delicto (Latin for “in blazing offense,” sometimes used colloquially as a euphemism for someone caught red-handed in sexual activity) while engaged in sexual intercourse with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite chief. She is a princess and he is the son of a chief of one of the Tribes of Israel; these are not your average schleppers, and the fact that their lineage is mentioned means that they are prominent and well regarded, until now. Seems that God wanted to make an example of God’s utter intolerance of the alliances and intermarriages between the Midianites and the Israelites, despite the fact that in a previous generation, Moshe/Moses married Tzipporah, a Midianite, daughter of Yitro/Jethro, the beloved priest of Midian.

The attitudes of the Israelites towards assimilation and interchanges with their neighbors vacillate and change with the times… In some generations intimacy seems to have been more or less OK, and at other times completely forbidden. Do you think that vacillation exists today as well? How have attitudes towards intermarriages between races and religions changed over the past several generations?

Let’s end with an 18th century poem by Robert Burns, who sees a glorious exit to this world in the example of Zimri and Cozbi:

I murder hate by flood or field,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood -
Life-giving wars of Venus.
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.

I would not die like Socrates,
For all the fuss of Plato;
Nor would i with Leonidas,
Nor yet would i with Cato:
The zealots of the church and state
Shall ne’er my mortal foe be;
But let me have bold Zimri’s fate,
Within the arms of Cozbi!

Sarah’s Life and Rebecca’s Voice

Our parasha opens with the words, “The span of Sarah’s lifetime was…” indicating that Sarah, our first foremother, wife of Abraham and mother of Yitzhak, has died. We can know this only because now we can count her days. It is a statement filled with irony and sadness, because the text focuses on her death and burial, while using the words, “Sarah’s life(span).”

As one generation passes, the story continues with the next generation. Some early rabbinic commentators tell us that Sarah died when she heard the false rumor that her husband had sacrificed her beloved son — upon hearing this news, she had a heart attack from extreme grief. (Abraham had no instant messaging or updates on his Facebook status to let folks know something like “Trip to Mt. Moriah went well — sacrificed a ram instead of our son.”

Whatever the reason for her death, this parasha moves on to a narrative of new beginnings and romance, and provides a rich portrait of the second of our foremothers, Rebecca/Rivka. The g-dcast cartoon this week focuses on this story line. Watch it here:

The g-dcast storyteller in this episode gives us the plotline of how Abraham’s servant travels back to Abraham’s native land, in Aram Naharyim, to find a suitable wife for his son, Yitzhak/Isaac. (By the way, Yitzhak is the only one of the 3 forefathers who never leaves the Land of Canaan/the promised land/what becomes the Land of Israel.)

The g-dcast cartoon includes a traditional commentary which says that Rebecca/Rivka was only 3 years old when she performed the prodigious act of watering the caravan of 10 camels that came with Abraham’s servant and his retinue. Hmmm… Watering the camels is already quite a feat of prowess and strength (see Genesis chapter 24, verses 16, 18-20). Robert Alter (a UC Berkeley professor who writes and lectures on the bible) calls it the closest thing to a “feat of Homeric heroism…” in Genesis. She is, in Alter’s words, “a continuous whirl of purposeful activity. In 4 short verses she is the subject of eleven verbs of action and one of speech…”

While this sounds like the dervish-like activity of a hyper-active toddler, I don’t think she was a baby. Rather, I think the servant saw a beautiful teenager, “very comely to look at, a virgin…” (verse 16). She also was extremely kind, intuitive, resourceful, independent, gregarious and eager for adventure. Read the description of what she says (she has a voice!! amazing for a women in the Bible!!) in verses 57-61 when her kinsmen ask her if she wants to accept the generous offer to marry Yitzhak, the son of their relative, Abraham. The qualities just listed make Rivka a perfect choice for a marriage partner for Yitzhak, who, after his trauma of being almost slaughtered on an altar by his father, likely suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome his entire life. He also seems to have been the more passive partner in this marriage.

When I read a commentary that just feels wrong, I feel perfectly OK disregarding the commentator’s interpretation and replacing it with my own, as long as it fits with the text. I want and need to be loyal to the text, and not distort it with some off-the-wall commentary just because it better suits my world-view.

The text belongs to all of us, and we can “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it” (Mishnah Avot 5:25).

Let’s end with a poem by Reba Connell on what happens when Rivka first sees Yitzhak, taking off on (Genesis chapter 24:64:

Rivkah’s Voice by Reba Connell
“And Rivkah lifted up her eyes and saw Yitzhak and fell off the camel.” — Genesis 24:64

she rises that morning
like every morning
to walk in the early light
and bring water from the well

among the dusty goats
she walks to the well
the sun hangs low in the sky
she squints in its glare
heavy jug on slight shoulder

as she lowers her jug
the waters see her
and immediately rise up
she does not hear the other maidens
whispering in surprise

the water flows uninterrupted
her jar has no bottom
she does not see the man or his camels
even as she rushes back and forth

all is the flowing water
the bright sun
and the voice surrounding her

rivkah
you will be a sign to your descendants
because the waters rose to you
your sister of the future yet-to-be
miriam, will bring a well with her
for the thirsty children in the desert

the voice that says: elech, I will go
is both her own
and the same voice that said lech l’chah to avram

she follows the voice
her own and not her own
to the new land

for that voice
she will abandon family
land, birthplace
even her well

the voice speaks to her
the whole journey

when she sees a strange man
the voice says
your descendants will remember him
not you
you will love me as you do now
and follow my commandments
but it will not be written

she falls off the camel

Go To Yourself!

This week’s Torah reading (“parasha”) throws us smack into the middle of the nitty-gritty of the first Hebrew family, Avram and Sarai, whose genealogy we read last week at the end of parashat Noah.

Terach (the idol maker) lived in Ur of the Chaldees and had 3 sons: Avram, Nahor and Haran. When they were grown, Avram and Nahor both took wives; Avram’s wife was Sarai… and her sister married Avram’s brother! To complicate things even more, both wives were the daughters of the 3rd son of Terach, Haran — which means that Avram married his niece! Before we even get started on the patriarchal and matriarchal tales of the Hebrews, we get an intertwined genealogy.

Then, the first thing we learn about Sarai is that she was barren (Genesis 11:30). Finally, we begin our parasha in chapter 12, with the plot getting ever more intense. A few incidents: Sarai is passed off as Avram’s sister in Egypt, Sarai becomes terribly jealous and wreaks havoc in the household when, after she gives Hagar (her handmaid) to Avram, Hagar actually becomes pregnant (Genesis 16:4-11).

But, we’ll leave the juicy parts for another time.

The parasha commences with the words, Lech Lecha, translated as “Go forth” or “Set yourself forth,” a command from God to Avram that begins chapter 12. Just one of many names in the genealogy of the previous chapter, now this one name, Avram, has the spotlight turned on him; we see Avram emerge as an individual character, whose life trajectory we will follow all the way until Chapter 25. He is the first figure we really get to know in some depth, and whose adventures and conversations describe what feels like a real person. He is more nuanced than the biblical figures before him (Adam, Noah, etc.) and because of this, we realize we have moved from a universal history to a national history that is also a personal history. In his book, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, Martin Buber writes a magnificent chapter titled “Abraham the Seer (chapter 3).”

Continue reading

The Death of Moses and The Torah’s End

Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.)   On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face.  Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1.  Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).

Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons.  NEW SENTENCES:  After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis.  They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance. 

Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life.  He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo.  Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.

Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord.  He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Wow!  Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable!  And who is it exactly that buries Moses?  The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.

This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition.  It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.

Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:

But Moses did not sleep on the mountain.  He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled.  The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.”  Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.

The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:

None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!

For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.

So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.

But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face.  Drew him out with a  kiss.

and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.

Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.

And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot.  He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.

Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”

TO CONSIDER:

  1. What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different?  Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
  2. How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel?  Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die?  Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?