Sunday, July 29, 2012

God's image is closer than you think / V'etchanan

David Letterman’s Top Ten lists are famous. Now everyone writes them. Letterman’s purpose was to parody People magazine’s “Worst 10” lists. Late Night writer Steve O’Donnell is said to have come up with the idea, but some claim that the idea came from The Dick Clark Show, which aired from 1958 to 1960.

The idea actually comes from God. The first “top ten” list is in parshat V’etchanan: the Ten Commandments. The most oft repeated of the ten is unquestionably the second, which prohibits idolatrous worship of false gods and making plastic images of God.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image (pesel), any likeness (t’munah) of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Deuteronomy 5:8-9)

We find mention of this commandment in V’etchanan even before the Ten Commandments:

Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that the Lord your God concluded with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured image (pesel) of any likeness, against which the Lord your God has enjoined you (t’munat kol asher tziv’kha Adonai Elohekha). For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God. (Deuteronomy 4:23-24)

In both cases, the terms used are pesel and t’munah. Pesel is generally understood to connote a carved or chiseled object that is worshiped, or that represents a deity that is worshiped. T’munah generally connotes shape or form, a somewhat more abstract term. During the 16th century Protestant Reformation and beyond, when Christians debated the nature of Jesus, the phrase finitum non est capax infiniti (“the finite cannot contain the infinite”) was a flashpoint. This notion has often been used to explain Torah’s prohibition against idols and images of God; they can neither contain nor adequately represent God.

We understand the prohibition against pictures, sculptures, and other physical representations of God, but what about verbal representations of God that create an image in one’s mind? If it’s true that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then we can create mental with our words. How far may we go with metaphor before we are “creating an image”?

Deuteronomy 4:24 (quoted above) warns the Israelites against practicing idolatry, For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God. The Rabbis are intrigued by the description of God as “a consuming fire.” What does that tell us about God? In turn, what does that teach us about ourselves? In tractate Sotah (14a) of the Babylonian Talmud we find:

R. Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What is the meaning of: You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 13:5)?  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah; for has it not been said: For the Lord your God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24)?  But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God.

As God clothes the naked -- for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21) -- so should you also clothe the naked.

As the Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick -- for it is written: And the Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1) -- so should you also visit the sick.

As the Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners -- for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son (Genesis 25:11) -- so should you also comfort mourners.

As the Holy one, blessed be God, buried the dead -- for it is written: And He buried [Moses] in the valley (Deuteronomy 34:6) -- so should you also bury the dead.

Torah adjures us not to create images of God, yet the Rabbis move quickly from imagining God a consuming fire, to imagining an embodied God -- one who clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts mourners, and buries the dead. Are the Rabbis not flirting at the edges of idolatry here in describing God in physical, human terms? Are they not creating an image of God with words, and is it not a form of idolatry?

Arthur Green, in his book Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow writes that the most important teaching he received from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was in response to the question, “Why are we forbidden to make images of God?” The answer is not because God is beyond all images and therefore no image could depict God. If that were the case, Heschel argued, images of God would be harmless because they would be meaningless. Rather, “God has an image, and that is you.” Arthur Green elaborates: “You may not make the image of God because you are the image of God. The only medium in which you can make God’s image is the medium of your entire life, and that is precisely what we are commanded to do.”

The passage from Sotah is only one of scores of passages that depict God in human terms, both anthropomorphically and anthropopathically; the Rabbis often speak of God’s human form and human emotions. How can we “walk after” God -- imitatio dei (“imitate God”) -- without a model? Long ago, the Rabbis understood what Abraham Joshua Heschel taught Arthur Green: we are God’s image. Finitum non est capax infiniti (“the finite cannot contain the infinite”) is decidedly untrue. We are part of the Divine and what we do with our lives is how God interacts with the world. We are the eyes, ears, hands, and mouth of God. 
The Rabbis teach us that our lives -- yours and mine -- are God working in the world. What you do truly matters. Something to ponder the next time you make a decision, however inconsequential; something to internalize when you make bigger and more important decisions. As Arthur Green put it so eloquently: “God’s image is the medium of your entire life.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The sting of criticism / Devarim

Imagine that you are attending a lovely dinner party in celebration of the 40th anniversary and retirement of the CEO of the company where you work. The CEO started the company, nurtured it, and grew it into an admirable success. Following dinner, the retiring CEO strides to the podium, leans into the microphone, and says, “For 40 years we have worked side-by-side to build this company. I have poured my heart and soul into it, but you have not always supported my efforts. In fact, you have failed me on many occasions…” and with that beginning, he enumerates the ways his employees have disappointed him over the years. Yes, the business grew and succeeded, but the road was twisted and rocky, and it is the stones and hairpin turns that the CEO now recalls.

Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) presents itself as a compilation of Moses’ final addresses to the Israelites. He will soon retire from life, and the Israelites will enter the Land without him. Moses begins by recalling Sinai and God’s promise that they would inherit the Land of the their ancestors. But then Moses says abruptly,

… “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself. The Lord your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky… How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and bickering! (Deuteronomy 1:9-12)

A bit later, Moses recounts the episode of the spies and reminds the assembled nation,

Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Lord your God. You sulked in your tents and said, “It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorite to wipe us out.” (Deuteronomy 1:26-27)

Why does Moses begin on such a critical and demoralizing note? We might say that he was scrupulously following Torah’s instruction, Do not hate your fellow in your heart. You should surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17). Our Sages understood this verse as a mandate to rebuke those who have sinned. But of course that rebuke happened -- long before when the events occurred.

After telling us of our duty to rebuke, in the next breath the Rabbis tell us that there is a proper way to do this. Here are the principles:
1.     Do it gently and quietly.
2.     Do it only in private and avoid embarrassing the recipient.
3.     Rebuke only with the intent to help the recipient to do better.
These are difficult conditions to fulfill. Rebuke creates a most uncomfortable situation for both the one delivering rebuke, and the one receiving it. No one likes to be criticized and most of us don’t like to criticize another to his or her face.

When the Sages discuss how and when to rebuke another person, we find a trilogy of opinions that sound remarkably contemporary:

R. Tarfon said, “I wonder whether there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof, for if one says to him, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ he would reply, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’ ”

R. Eleazar b. Azariah said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to reprove!”

R. Yochanan ben Nuri said, “I call heaven and earth to witness for myself that Akiba was often rebuked by me, for I used to complain against him before Rabban Gamliel, and he showered love upon me all the more, fulfilling what has been said, Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you; reprove a wise person and he will love you (Proverbs 9:8).”

(B.Arachin 16b)

Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah tell us that delivering rebuke is essentially pointless because people reject it, and no one is really knows how to deliver it anyway. R. Yochanan b. Nuri, in providing the exceptional case, reinforces his colleagues’ argument: there is none like Akiba, just as there was none like Moses. Therefore, rebuke is a practice of the past.

Most of us think we’re not critical people, but the reality is that knowingly or unknowingly, we deliver criticism and rebuke day in and day out.
  • The mother who visits her grown daughter and says, “What an unusual way to make quiche! I’ve never seen this before,” may believe it to be a neutral statement, but her daughter may well hear, “She thinks it’s awful.”
  • The boss who says, “I’m glad to see you got this report in on time,” may think her words are encouraging, but her employee might hear, “She’s thinking about all the deadlines I missed; I finally get one in on time and she hints at the ones I missed.”
  • The teacher who says to his student, “Your story is interesting,” may believe he has said something positive, but every child knows that when parents and teachers say only that your story or artwork is “interesting,” it means they don’t like it.

The Rabbis give us an excellent set of overarching principles, but we need to put flesh on these bones to deal with the nitty-gritty of life. How should we frame our message? What words should we use and which should we avoid? How can we ensure that we are constructive and not insulting? In truth, this is something we should all study diligently because even when we don’t mean to be critical, often our words are heard as criticism, and they wound. Here are a few helpful resources:
  1. A concise set of 10 excellent principles and rules.
  2. Another concise list, but with suggestions on how to phrase things. One caveat: I would recommend steering clear using the word “but” in any sentence.
  3. This one is the very best of all because it is detailed -- we learn how to use words carefully, both what to say and what not to say. This document was formulated for the workplace, but is easily translated to every other situation and relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that the mother, boss, and teacher mentioned earlier did have something negative in the backs of their minds. What might they have said?
  • The mother might have said, “You certainly are adventurous and innovative. This is a new combination to me. Personally, I’m not sure it works for me, but I love trying something new. Thanks for sharing this with me.”
  • The boss might have said, “Thank you for getting this to me on time. I know how tough that can be, but you have helped me because I’m going to make use of your report right away. I appreciate your effort.”
  • The teacher might have said, “I loved that you tried something new in this story, and used some new and descriptive words I’ve never seen you use before. I think there might be a few places where the reader could be confused, but these are all fixable. Did you know that all great writers go over their work again and again, making corrections on top of corrections?”

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love her [the tongue] shall eat its fruit.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Vengeance: Fine wine or vinegar? / Mattot-Mase'ei

I had an elementary school tormentor: a mean girl who wielded immense social power and sought to isolate me.  After three years of misery, our paths separated in junior high school and her power dissipated. But I would be dishonest if I denied having fantasies of revenge. As the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin once remarked, “Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”

Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago has written, "The primitive sense of the just — remarkably constant from several ancient cultures to modern institutions… starts from the notion that a human life... is a vulnerable thing, a thing that can be invaded, wounded, violated by another's act in many ways. For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counter invasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment." ("Equity and Mercy," in Sex and Social Justice)

Human history is sadly riddled with acts of retaliation and retribution, vendettas and vigilante “justice,” from the elementary school playground to the arena of the world stage. The desire for revenge is among the less attractive outgrowths of human ego and pride.

Torah tells us very clearly that acts of vengeance are out:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

Torah also makes it clear that God will avenge Israel:

God will take revenge against Israel’s enemies -- To be My vengeance and recompense, at the time that their foot falters, Yea, their day of disaster is near, and destiny rushes upon them. For the Lord will vindicate His people and take revenge for His servants when He sees that their might is gone, and neither bond nor free is left.” (Deuteronomy 32:35-36)

And so we find,

Do not say, "I'll pay you back for this wrong!" Wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you (Proverbs 20:22; see also 24:29).

The image of God as Cosmic Avenger comes from deep within the human psyche, that place Martha Nussbaum speaks about. It’s not genuine justice, is more about “fairness,” a more primitive notion that is far more reactive than it is thoughtful. God as Cosmic Avenger is a human projection onto God of what people wish they could be and do, and it becomes most dangerous when it serves to justify their acts of vengeance.

This week we read the combined parshiot of Mattot and Mase’ei. In Mattot we find God instructing Moses that the Israelites themselves are to take revenge against the Midianites (who seem to have been conflated into the Moabites held responsible for the incident of idolatry in Baal-pe’or, as recounted at the end of parshat Balak -- Numbers 25:1-9 -- where Moab and Midian appear to be used interchangeably).

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

How is this possible? Do we find here license to exact revenge against our enemies? After all, God not only calls for vengeance, but orders Moses to pursue it.

One could certainly choose to interpret the text that way, but everything in Jewish tradition argues against such an irresponsible interpretation. Our passage, in which God instructs Moses to mount an army for a war of revenge, makes clear that only God can command such an action. So don’t rush to your inbox looking for that message. It isn’t coming.

Our Sages wrestled with the notion of revenge. They said that the world operates -- which is to say that God runs the world -- by the principle of middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure.” This means, “you reap what you sow,” or as is more commonly said these days, “what goes around comes around.” They were careful to point out that retribution is not to be wrought by human beings; it comes as the result of one’s actions. Here’s an example, and it’s problematic, containing an internal contradiction. It concerns the sotah, the suspected adulterous, who undergoes a degrading ordeal described in Numbers, chapter 5, to publicly vindicate her from her husband’s rash accusation.

According to the measure with which one measures [out one’s actions], it is measured out to him. She [the sotah] adorned herself with sin; the Holy One blessed be God made her repulsive. She exposed herself to sin; the Holy One blessed be God held her up for exposure. She began the sin with the thigh and afterward with the belly; therefore she is punished first in the thigh and afterward in the belly – and the rest of the body does not escape. (Sotah 8b)

The Rabbis want to claim that the ordeal is just and appropriate. But the sotah is most often vindicated, which means that the woman suffers everything described above without having done anything wrong. This is hardly middah k’neged middah (measure for measure).

The measure-for-measure mentality is one of retribution and revenge. It does not come from the best part of us. In 1597, Sir Francis Bacon noted in an essay entitled “On Revenge”: “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior…” How do we forego revenge? Our Sages, recognizing the intensity of our human desire and inclination for revenge, teach us to reframe our situation and channel our emotions into good. A wonderful example is the story of the great R. Meir who is bent on revenge, and his extraordinarily wise wife, Beruriah, who teaches him to reframe his natural impulse. Beruriah’s teaching depends upon reading a word in Psalm 104 with a different set of vowels: “sinners” becomes “sins.” Here’s the story:

There were once some robbers in the neighborhood of R. Meir who caused him a great deal of trouble. R. Meir accordingly prayed that they should die. His wife Beruriah said to him: How do you justify [that such a prayer should be permitted]? Is it because it is written (Psalm 104:35) Let chatta'im (sins) cease? Is it written chot'im “sinners”? It is written chatta'im “sins”! Further, look at the end of the verse: and let the wicked be no more. Since the sins will cease, there will be no more wicked people! Rather pray for them that they should repent, and there will be no more wicked. He did pray for them, and they repented. (Berakhot 10a)

Sir Francis Bacon would have lauded Beruriah’s teaching, had he studied Talmud. So, too, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, addressed revenge on the societal, rather than personal, level:

… nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time - the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression… If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

When I got to high school, I had a shot at revenge against my elementary school nemesis. Even four years later, it was sorely tempting. Long ago Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Confucius probably had in mind the possibility (or probability) of counter-revenge by an irate family. But we can understand his words figuratively: when we exact revenge against another, a piece of our integrity and decency dies. We’d like to think that revenge is sweet. It rarely is, and comes at too steep a personal cost. I’m glad I decided to forego the opportunity. Many years later, I had the opportunity to sip the nectar of schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of another), but I found even that wasn’t sweet. I was lucky to have figured out in time that what I imagined would taste like fine wine, would in actuality have tasted like vinegar.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, July 8, 2012

God's "Death Panel" / Pinchas

On Thursday, July 16, 2009, Betsy McCaughey (former lieutenant governor of New York) spoke out against the health care act of 2009 (bill HR 3200) on the Fred Thompson radio show. She said, “Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner." How? McCaughey claimed that these sessions would teach elderly people how to “decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go into hospice care... all to do what's in society's best interest or in your family's best interest and cut your life short." Within weeks, Sarah Palin launched the “Death Panel” myth, injecting venomous lies into an important political conversation for this country to hold.

The truth, which McCaughey and Palin worked assiduously to obscure with hysterical claims and terrifying scenarios, is that Section 1233 of the bill -- “Advanced Care Planning Consultation” -- would have provided compensation for doctors to counsel Medicare patients concerning advanced directives and end-of-life care options. You know the rest.

Politically, McCaughey, Palin, Fox, and all the talk radio hosts who chimed in to spread the lie, did an enormous disservice to our nation by contributing to the degradation of political debate and ramping up rank partisanship yet another notch. On a societal level -- and this is my concern for this drash -- they knowingly scared people away from facing the end-of-life reality and discussing their options with physicians and social workers.

Hospice, which provides unique end-of-life care, has taken hold and grown roots in this country. Hospice affords the very best way to retain a meaningful and valuable measure of control in a painful and sad situation. A coordinated, interdisciplinary team of professionals delivers care: doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and bereavement counselors. Unfortunately, it is common for people to enter into hospice care only days before they die. Sometimes it is the failure of families to face reality. Often it is the failure of doctors to be completely open with the family about the situation; doctors are trained to treat and cure, after all.

McCaughey and Palin have polluted our culture with outright lies that continue to breed fear and make it more difficult to help families face reality. The result is more pain and suffering -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually -- on the part of the patient and his/her family and friends. Proper end-of-life planning and counseling -- precisely what Section 1233 was designed to provide -- would prevent many long, drawn-out and painful deaths, weeks and even months of hospitalization tethered to tubes and wires, enduring painful treatments and experiencing at best a questionable quality of life. Section 1233 would have ameliorated the problem and helped us, as a society, move in the direction of honesty and compassion.

Parshat Pinchas tells us that God is Moses’ so-called “Death Panel” -- indeed, God does for Moses what we need compassionate professionals to do for the dying today. God apparently has a divine Section 1233:

The Lord said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was… (Numbers 27:12-13)

God is completely honest with Moses: he does not have much longer to live. God takes Moses up to the heights of Avarim not to torment him with the sight of the Land he will not enter, but rather to impress upon him the legacy he will leave. The Israelites Moses has loyally led for four decades will succeed in establishing a national life in the Land. Moses’ lifetime of efforts will bear sweet fruit.

God’s honesty and compassion open space for Moses to face his own death and
make preparations to turn over the reins to Joshua.

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” And the Lord answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord. By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in, he and all the Israelites, the whole community. (Numbers 27:15-23)

When the time comes for Moses to die, he will do so knowing that he has finished his mission here on earth, has tied up all the loose ends, and leaves a legacy of which he can be proud. His people are in good hands with Joshua; Moses has seen to that. Soon we will begin reading D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses delivers a series of summing-up talks. These afford him the opportunity to review and evaluate his life, gift the Israelites with an oral ethical will, and exhort them to live up to their covenant with God as they make new lives for themselves in the Land of Israel.

Would that we could do this for everyone: help them arrive at the end of life with dignity and compassion, having reviewed and summed up, and knowing that they are passing on a legacy. Moses has all this because God operates by the values, principles, and priorities that inspired Section 1233 -- "Advance Care Planning Consultation." Each of us deserves the same dignity and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, July 1, 2012

So saith the donkey / Balak

I loved Dr. Doolittle when I read it many years ago.  Dr. Doolittle could speak every animal language. Legend has it that King Solomon also understood the language of animals. But parshat Balak, featuring a talking animal, does not tell us that humans understand the language of a donkey, but rather that the donkey can speak the language of humans.

Parshat Balak beings by telling us that King Balak of Moab sees that the Israelites encamped on the border of his land have defeated the Amorites.

Moab was alarmed because the people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 2:3-4)

Balak therefore engages Balaam, a Moabite prophet, for a goodly sum. His assignment is to curse Israel so that Balak can initiate a war and drive Israel out of his land. Balaam is more than happy to comply. The pay is good and presumably the job will be quick and easy. It’s not. God forbids Balaam from cursing Israel. He is, however, permitted to meet with Balak and the elders of Moab. This is where the story becomes highly entertaining. To prevent Balaam from making the journey, God stations an angel in the middle of the road. Balaam’s she-ass swerves to avoid it, and Balaam beats her, but the angel places himself in a spot where the road narrows and there is a fence on either side. Again, the ass tries to avoid the angel and in so doing, squeezes Balaam’s foot against the wall on one side. Balaam beats her a second time. The lane narrows even more, so there is no possibility of swerving to avoid the angel. Torah tells us:

When the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick. Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.” Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. (Numbers 22:27-31)

Here is an ass that can see what the human cannot, and even speaks lovely, grammatical Hebrew.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, commenting on this passage, offers an insightful observation about the power of speech:

The enemies of Israel heard that the power of Moses lay in his tongue, his power of speech, and they did not know that this refers to his power of prayer. They thought that Moses was an inspirational orator. They therefore hired Balaam, who was known as a powerful speaker, able to inspire and to debate, to vilify and to intimidate, in order to overcome Moses with the power of his words. Therefore God gave the power of speech to Balaam’s donkey, to teach you that even an ass can be a great orator. (Imrei Tzvi)

People are mesmerized by great orators. Charismatic speakers command power and influence. The irony here is rich: Moses a great speaker? Moses has a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10). Yet the king of Moab fears Moses’ inspirational oratory? Moses’ power of speech is content, not style and delivery. Balaam, however, is known to be a skilled and accomplished orator, the sort who commands attention and impresses people. His words, however, are vacuous.

People are often swayed by those who exude charisma and deliver stirring oratory. Words can kindle the urge for war, inspire hope, break a heart; words can wound and they can heal. Speech can unify people around a common goal, or cause irreparable divisiveness. Today, great “orators” often deliver their speeches in video or writing on the Internet: eloquent, emotional, evocative. It is easy to lose sight of content when we are spellbound by form. But the most eloquent speaker here is neither Moses nor Balaam. It is the she-ass, in her simplicity and sincerity. Cohen is entirely correct: “even an ass can be a great orator.” We must look beyond the style at the content.

And what can we say about Cohen’s contention that Moses’ power of speech was actually “his power of prayer”? What is the role of prayer in all this? The phrase u-le’avdo b’khol levavchem in Deuteronomy 11:13, is usually translated “and to serve Him with all your heart.” The root ayin-bet-daled can mean “serve,” “pray,” or “work.” Rabbi Avi Weiss suggests we read the phrase u-la’avod ito “and to work with God.” He offers a paradigm of prayer quite different from the more common servile model. Rather than serving God through prayer, we are working with God to complete Creation through our covenantal responsibilities. In Hebrew, the word l’hitpalel “to pray” actually means, “to judge oneself.” The act of prayer is one of self-scrutiny: Am I living up to my commitments and potential? Am I contributing to tikkun olam (“the repair of the world”)? Am I living by the values of tzedek (“righteousness”) and mishpat (“justice”)? Prayer by this paradigm is an exercise in rebooting our self-image computer, and re-launching our moral software.

This is Moses’ strength: his words come from the heart, from a place of moral concern and intention. Balaam, however great an orator, is a hired prophet: he speaks for pay. His words have no last meaning until he speaks the words God puts in his mouth:

Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!
(Numbers 24:5)

How fitting that we begin morning prayers each day with these words.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
 Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Cohen (1862-1950)