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Parashat Balak 5775 — 07/01/2015

Parashat Balak 5775 — 07/01/2015

After his three attempts to curse the Israelites proved unsuccessful, Bilam figured the least he could do for Balak was to give him advice on how he might destroy the Jews. He told Balak, “The Gd of this people despises immorality” and followed up with the suggestion that the Moabites prostitute their women to entice the Israelites to sin and to worship their idols. Unfortunately, this advice was successful, and the resulting plague killed some 24,000 people, until Pinchas’ killing of Zimri and Cozbi (not Bill Cosbi) stopped it.

The particular idol involved was called Pe’or and its worship consisted in defecating in front of it. Gross! In fact, we find the whole idea of idolatry to be gross nowadays, and wonder how anybody could have been tempted to worship man-made objects of wood and metal and stone. What were they thinking? And yet the Talmud records that it took a tremendous spiritual effort on the part of the Men of the Great Assembly to attenuate the temptation to idolatry.

Rav Kook explains why idolatry is so tempting:

The source of idolatry’s appeal is in fact a holy one – an impassioned yearning for closeness to Gd. Ignorance and moral turpitude, however, prevent this closeness and block the divine light from the soul. The overwhelming desire for divine closeness, despite one’s moral failings, leads to idol worship. Instead of correcting one’s flaws, these spiritual yearnings are distorted into cravings for idolatry. The unholy alliance of spiritual yearnings together with immoral and decadent behavior produces the intrinsic foulness of idolatry. Instead of trying to elevate humanity and refine our desires, idolatry endeavors to debase our most refined aspirations to our coarsest physical aspects. This is the ultimate message of Peor’s scatalogical practices.

Or in the words of a modern poet:

cares not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he’s in. (Bob Dylan)

This seems to be a lesson that Torah has to teach us over and over again. Yearning for closeness to Gd is noble, but the approach to Gd must made properly, and one must prepare oneself properly. We find this in the case of Nadav and Avihu (in Parashat Shemini) who brought “strange fire” before Gd and were burned for their trouble. Afterwards, Aharon is warned not to “come at all times into the Inner Sanctum.” Rather the approach must be slow and ritualized to avoid overstepping into areas that we are not prepared to experience safely. Even Moshe Rabbeinu has his limitations – when he asks to know Gd’s ways, he is told “no human being can see my face and live.”

We find the same message in the famous Talmudic story of the “four who entered Paradise.” (Chagiga 14b) Ben Azzai gazed on the Divine Presence and died. Ben Zoma gazed and went insane. Acher [lit “the other one” – Elisha ben Abuya] became a heretic. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. (See for an explanation of the whole story.) Obviously R. Akiva, the “tour guide” for this group, was prepared for the intensity of the experience; the others, unfortunately, were not. When we approach the infinite, our finite selves are overwhelmed, like the light of a small candle is overwhelmed by the radiance of the noonday sun. The human being cannot “get his head around” that which created him, almost by definition – if it weren’t bigger than us, how could it have created us?! Nevertheless, with proper preparation, it is certainly possible to have a closer relationship with Gd than most of us do. But the preparation is essential, for without it, we will surely be blown away.

As Rav Kook points out, there are two possible solutions to this issue. The first way, the Jewish way, is to prepare ourselves, morally, socially, intellectually, even physically, to approach Gd. This involves expanding our boundaries towards the infinite, in a controlled way, using the guidelines of our Tradition. We systematically remove the obstacles that are standing in the way of our relationship with Gd. I am writing this during period of the counting of the Omer. We say that this period was given to us to “purify us of our ‘shells'” – the material coverings over our souls that block our radiance from coming out, and block Gd’s radiance from coming in and enlightening our lives.

The other solution is that of the idolator. Instead of trying to come close to Gd, he tries to bring Gd down to his level. Does he have to relieve himself? Make it a form of worship! Does he want sex? Hire a prostitute, put her up in the idol’s temple, call it “sacred” and have at it! In the idolatrous world, rather than Gd’s creating man in His image, man creates gods in his image. The problem with this approach is obvious – if Gd creates man in His image, it exalts man to Divine stature; if man creates gods in his image, it brings the infinite Divine down to the finite level. Look at the intrigues and betrayals of the Greek gods – just like people, only worse, because they’re more powerful.

Now we understand the temptation of idolatry. In very simple terms, people are lazy. Stretching ourselves, making ourselves better people, expanding our outlook, it’s all a lot of work. The body doesn’t like to work, and in many cases, neither do the mind or the intellect. An absolute Gd, who makes demands on our behavior, is extremely inconvenient, to say the least. “Till death do us part?!?!” Abstain from relations for half a month, every month?!? Don’t steal? Give away a quarter of your produce to the poor and the religious leadership? Do you know how much toil and effort went into producing that produce? Who needs it? Let’s just make our own gods, to our own specifications. Our Rabbis tell us that in the end, the only reason the Israelites practiced idolatry was so they could enjoy forbidden pleasures.

Now in truth, we are put here to bring Gd down to earth. That doesn’t mean, however, that we limit Gd. It means, rather, that we infuse Gdliness into every thought we think and every action we perform. We turn the finite into a reflection of infinity. It takes work and it takes self-discipline. It takes prioritizing the spiritual, the ethereal, over the physical, crude, temporal. It’s not for the lazy, but the rewards are without comparison.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 2

R. Yehoshua ben Levi says: Day after day a Heavenly voice comes out of Mt. Chorev [Mt. Sinai] proclaiming: “Woe to humankind for their contempt of the Torah,” for whoever is not occupied with Torah is considered rebuked … as it says: And the Tablets are the work of Gd and the writing is Gd’s writing engraved [harut] on the Tablets.” Do not read “engraved” but “freedom” [herut], for nobody is free unless he is occupied with Torah.

I have speculated many times that when the Sages of our tradition talk about talmud Torah (“study” of Torah) that they don’t actually mean academic book learning. As the Indian proverb goes, “Knowledge in the books stays in the books – it’s never there when you need it.” Instead, our Sages tell us that we must become Torah. The wisdom of Torah must so suffuse our consciousness that we spontaneously think the way Torah thinks – that is, the way Gd thinks, insofar as a human being is capable. Now R. Yehoshua ben Levi, one of the saintliest of the Sages of the Talmud, comes to tell us that Gd, as it were, cries out about our neglect of Torah. On first glance we think this outcry is because Gd is angry. I think it can as easily be read as Gd crying out in pain, as it were, because by neglecting Torah we are just hurting ourselves. Why? Because by neglecting Torah we are neglecting our essential selves, the infinitely expanded, infinitely wise person that we are. And this neglect leaves us in bondage – bondage to fashion fads, bondage to what other people think of us, bondage to our senses, our petty desires, our fears, our likes and dislikes. So why do we neglect Torah? We’re lazy! Wake up, sleepers the shofar calls to us every Rosh haShanah! You have nothing to lose but your chains!