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Parashat Balak 5776 — 07/23/2016

Parashat Balak 5776 — 07/23/2016

Bamidbar 22:2-25:9

You shall cover [the Ark] with pure gold, inside and out… (Ex. 25:11)

Whoever exhibits these three traits is a disciple of Abraham our patriarch, and [whoever exhibits] three other traits is a disciple of the wicked Bilam. The disciples of Abraham our patriarch have a generous eye, a modest spirit, and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Bilam have an envious eye, and ambitious spirit, and an arrogant soul. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

Our Sages appear to be of two minds about Bilam, whom Balak, King of Moav, hired to curse the Jewish people. On the one hand they compare his level of prophecy to that of Moshe Rabbeinu: There never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe (Devarim 34:10). Not in Israel, but among the nations there did arise a prophet like Moshe, so the nations cannot say ‘Had we had a prophet like Moshe, we too would have served the Holy One.’ And who was this [non-Jewish] prophet? Bilam ben Be’or (BaMidbar Rabbah 14).

On the other hand, Bilam earns the epithet “wicked” and we are instructed to interpret everything he says and does in a negative light, which is normally forbidden. And he makes the short list of those who are denied entry into the World to Come. Even purgation in Gehennom is not enough to create a soul pure enough to enter the Garden of Eden – although it is unclear what actually happens to such a soul, it appears that it is entirely annihilated, as it is beyond correction, fatally flawed.

The question is, how can this happen? How can someone communicate directly with Gd, and remain a wicked person? It would seem that the experience itself would make it impossible for one to fall into sinful behavior, but apparently it’s not. The Golden Calf incident is proof enough of that.

Bilam can be characterized as a great intellectual, theologian, and philosopher. His experience proves that it is possible to reach great achievements – even prophecy – by immersing oneself in the study of Gd. … Hence, our sages’ real argument with Bilam, their essential attitude toward him, stems from their assessment of him as a personality that stands in contrast to that of Abraham… The point of departure for one who serves Gd is that he serves Gd and is setting out to search for Him. In contrast, the philosopher is simply setting out to search. … The kabbalist and the philosopher have the same fundamental question regarding the disparity between Gd and the world: How can they be joined together in one system? … The philosopher’s reasoning begins as follows: There is a world. If there is a world, how could there be a Gd? The kabbalist begins differently: There is a Gd. If there is a Gd, how could there be a world? Each one of these approaches leads to a different conception of the world.

I am writing this shortly after Pesach, which I had the pleasure of spending in Winnipeg. Present inter alia at the Seder were my daughter, who teaches Philosophy at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, and a friend, a Rabbi and a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Manitoba. My daughter asked if we could pinpoint the animating principle in Judaism, and the discussion evolved into a debate as to whether Gd is transcendent or immanent. Since everyone present has a highly developed intellect, the debate was highly intellectual. As we have pointed out before, the intellect is the quality of the mind that distinguishes between things, and there are probably no concepts more distinct than Gd’s transcendence vs. Gd’s immanence. So the discussion went back and forth, because, in good Aristotelian fashion, the answer must be either one or the other – not both. It was the best Seder I’ve been to in many, many years!

Now Rabbi Steinsaltz’ beef with philosophy is not that it’s intellectual, nor that it does not seem to be able to reconcile opposite values. His problem is that it does not seem that the philosophical approach, at least as it is practiced today, leads to any improvement of character. Probably the most extreme example of this was German theologian Paul Tillich, who was notorious for bedding the wives of his graduate students. Perhaps this is because the philosophical approach is abstract, trying to access the Truth as an idea, detached as it were from practical considerations.

Our tradition takes a different approach. While Judaism obviously has a very strong intellectual component, it is harnessed to the service of right action. “Exposition is not the main thing, action is.” (Pirke Avot 1:17) The purpose of study is not to arrive at abstract notions of Truth or Virtue, rather it is to arrive at the proper course of action, both by defining the principles of right action based on Scriptural exegesis, and by culturing the personality through direct exhortation and examples of the action of righteous and saintly individuals. Unfortunately, as has recently become clear, this approach is not foolproof either.

Perhaps we could say that the philosophical approach emphasizes the transcendental aspect, the realm of pure Truth, while the Torah approach emphasizes the immanent aspect – pure Truth actualized in the world of differences. However, besides oversimplifying the nature of both philosophy and Torah, this still does not allow us to reconcile the two concepts of what Gd is.

I would like to suggest that the reason for our inability to reconcile Gd’s transcendence and Gd’s immanence is that we live our lives in a state of consciousness where we are focused only on boundaries, differences. But consider the following: when we go to the beach or on a cruise, we see waves; our focus is entirely on the waves. We forget that the waves are in fact nothing other than the ocean. A wave is an expression of the ocean, it is a boundary, something finite, as opposed to the unboundedness of the ocean. Yet we understand that the wave is just water – it is not different from the ocean in its essence. The wave is just the ocean at play. When we learn to perceive the universe and every object in it as nothing other than the expression of the underlying, transcendental field of pure Being, then questions of Transcendent vs. Immanent simply do not arise. We see Unity in diversity; we know Gd to be the transcendent reality, and we perceive all the variety of creation as nothing other than the dance of Gd.

Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8

Our haftarah contains the famous verse:

He has told you Mankind what is good and what Hashem seeks of you – only to do justly and to love lovingkindness and to walk humbly with your Gd. (6:8)

It strikes me that this line can be interpreted in terms of the apparent dichotomy we discussed in the parashah. To do justly requires intellectual inquiry and discrimination – what are the facts of the case, what are the relevant legal principles to be applied, how do all these impact the individual, the family, the society?

To love lovingkindness is a function of the heart – the emotions. Love is that which unites, which creates wholeness. Yet love alone, without being channeled by the intellect, is at best wasted, and at worst becomes destructive passion.

What is needed to harmonize these two? I think it’s a good dose of the Transcendent. Walking humbly with Gd means to me first: walking – that is, acting, bringing our spirituality into the field of action. And second – humility removes the individual ego and lets us serve Gd for the sake of others, for the sake of Heaven, not for any reward. Further, it means negating our own thinking, which is by nature limited, in favor of Gd’s thinking, Gd’s Will. When we do that, both the heart and the mind become elevated and work together for our individual good and the good of the entire cosmos.