Because next week I will not be able to write about Parashat Balak, this week we will examine both Parashat Chukat (Numbers: 19:1-22:1) and also, Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9).
Of the two, then first parashah, Chukat, is the less “interesting” to read. It deals with issues of water, for purification, for drinking, and as an essential resource for life.
The second Parashah, the one read during the next Shabbat, deals with blessings and curses, and recounts the story of Balaam and his famous talking donkey.
Reading the text in a foreign language such as English there appears to be no connection between these two sections. Viewing the text in the original Hebrew, however, provides a very different perspective. The Hebrew text revolves around four words: water, a pool of water, life, and blessing. These four words are not related in English but in Hebrew, the reader sees a very clear relationship between them. Water in Hebrew is “mayim;” life is “chayim.” Both words sound related and are plural verbal-nouns indicating both motion and consistent change. In a like manner, the Hebrew word for blessing “brachah” is related to the Hebrew word for “pool of water” (brechah). Thus, the Hebrew reader connects the constant flow of water to that of a stream of life and understands that without the physical pool of water (brechah) the spiritual blessings of life (brachah) cannot exist.
The second parashah tells the story of Balak’s asking the “prophet” Balaam (Bilaam in Hebrew) to curse Israel and instead Balaam’s curse becomes a blessing. The parashah concerns a number of “reversals”, things simply do not turn out according to plan. Not only does Balaam’s curse become a blessing, but the tale’s hero is not a human being but rather a mere donkey. The tale is one in which the human acts as an “ass” and the “ass” acts as a human.
While Balaam is arrogant, blind to reality and simply stupid, his donkey sees what he does not, talks to him, and shows both wisdom and compassion.
On the micro level, Balaam and his ass/donkey force us to ask the questions such as: what does it mean to be human? Who was more human Does this Biblical story teach us that people can become “asses” (In Hebrew the word for “ass/donkey” can also mean “stupid”) while some animals act more like people than do people? Do we sacrifice principles on the altar of greed?
In a sense, these two sections read together to teach us that life has both a material and spiritual side. Both sections deal with the “stated” and the “hidden”, the apparent and the less apparent. Life contains both the tangible and the intangible elements that distinguish it from other forms of existence. These sections remind us that to be successful in life we need to deal with all its aspects, and that life, like water, is an ever-moving stream.
What is true of people is also true of societies. Societies that do not change, that are stand still, soon die. The way we combine these elements of life helps to determine if we drink from the well of bitter waters or of living waters, waters filled curses or with blessings. From which well do you tend to drink, do you see only the apparent or also the hidden?
Youtubes of the week:
The Revivo Project is composed of young Israelis determined not only to revive classical Jewish music, especially from Sephardic Jews (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) but to make it part of Israel’s popular culture. Here are three examples.
Adon Olam and other classics:
At the Sultan’s Pool (Jerusalem):
On streets of the Machaneh Yehuda market: Shir Ha’Sirim (The Song of Songs):