June 19, 2013

Balak: Tents and Dwelling Places

The evil prophet Balaam wanted to curse the people of Israel, but instead found himself blessing them, “How goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel” (Num. 24:5).

Is the repetition in Balaam’s blessing only poetic? Or is there a deeper significance to these two forms of shelter, the ohel (tent) and the mishkan (dwelling place)?

The Journey of the Soul

As we strive to grow spiritually, we make use of two contradictory yet complementary methods. The first method is our aspiration to constantly improve ourselves. We strive to attain greater wisdom and enlightenment. We seek to continually refine the emotions and ennoble the spirit.

The second method is the necessity to restrain our striving for spiritual growth, in order to assimilate changes and guard against spiritual lapses. We want to internalize our spiritual and ethical gains, and maintain our current level. This means that we must curb the desire for growth, so that our ambitions do not overextend the soul’s natural capacity for change.

The tent and the mishkan are both forms of temporary shelter. Both relate to the soul’s upwards journey. However, they differ in a significant aspect. The tent is inherently connected to the state of traveling. It corresponds to the aspiration for constant change and growth. The mishkan is also part of the journey, but it is associated with the rests between travels. It is the soul’s sense of calm, its rest from the constant movement, for the sake of the overall mission.

Surprisingly, it is the second method that is the loftier of the two. The desire to change reflects a lower-level fear, lest we stagnate and deteriorate. Therefore, the blessing mentions tents first, together with the name Jacob, the first and embryonic name of the Jewish people. The need to stop and rest, on the other hand, stems from a higher-level fear, lest we over-shoot the appropriate level for the soul. For this reason, the blessing mentions “mishkan” together with the name Israel, Jacob’s second and holier name.

In any case, both aspects are required in order to achieve stable spiritual growth. Balaam’s prophetic blessing praises the balanced union of “How goodly are your tents, Jacob,” the soul’s longing for change, together with the more restful state of “your dwelling places, Israel,” restricting growth in order to avoid unchecked advancement, thus enabling the soul to properly absorb all spiritual attainments.

( Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 42-43)

In honour of my beloved nephew – Shalom Ramati’s wedding this week and for my Yemenite readers, here’s something on Pinchas.

Pinchas: Zealotry for the Sake of Heaven

Pinchas’ Lineage

When Pinchas saw a prince from the tribe of Shimon publicly cavorting with a Midianite princess, he took the law into his own hands. Using his spear, Pinchas killed them both. God praised his act of zealotry, rewarding him with the priesthood.

“Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen, was the one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned My anger away from them.” (Num. 25:11)
Why does the Torah need to point out Pinchas’ lineage here? This is particularly puzzling, considering that the Torah just identified Pinchas three verses earlier.

The Midrash (Sanhedrin 82b) explains that the tribal leaders mocked Pinchas: “His maternal grandfather (Jethro) fattened up calves for idolatrous sacrifices — and he had the audacity to murder a prince of Israel!” Therefore, the Torah publicized Pinchas’ lineage through his father’s side, Aaron the High Priest.

Yet the Midrash requires clarification. Why was it so important to respond to these disparaging comments? Furthermore, what does it help if one of Pinchas’ grandfathers was High Priest — his other grandfather was still a reformed idolater!

Pure Motives

Rav Kook explained that the Torah does not ordinarily approve of such acts of zealotry. Only if they were discharged purely for the sake of Heaven are they sanctioned.

Onlookers might have thought that Pinchas acted out of secondary motives. Perhaps he sought to demonstrate his faithfulness, despite a grandfather who was a convert. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that Pinchas acted as Aaron’s grandson. What characterized Aaron? The Sages wrote: “Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all people and drawing them near to the Torah” (Avot 1:12). Aaron, legendary for seeking the path of peace and reconciliation, would not have been suspect of ulterior motives. Pinchas’ action, the Torah emphasizes, was worthy of his illustrious grandfather. He acted as befits the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, with selfless intentions and a pure heart.

(Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 494)

In this week’s haftorah we read the famous call of the prophet Micah:
It has been told to you, what The Lord requires of you, to do justice, to love mercy and to walk HUMBLY with your God.

This week our President Shimon Peres, in his speech at his premature 11 million shekel 90th birthday party bash said that he learnt modesty from his late wife Sonia. Sonia Peres was a truly modest person and to invoke her name at one of the ugliest, most flamboyant, stomach churning spectacles in recent history is little more than a desecration of her memory!

But then what should I expect from a President of Israel who couldn’t even read his “favourite posuk” (taught to him by his grandfather Rabbi Zvi Melzer) correctly. It’s “midaber mirma” Shimon not midvar mirma. So much for promoting education.

Having lost five elections for Prime Minister and elections for various offices including the first time he stood for president, longevity has its rewards. And the premature death of your rivals!

Earlier this week, Maariv journalist Amnon Lord attacked Peres’s lavish birthday celebration.

“The greatest damage done by Shimon Peres is actually appropriated in his first love – peace,” wrote Lord. “Peres managed to turn the preoccupation with peace into a cynical, profit-making, self-promoting matter.

“Today, there is no Israeli citizen who takes peace seriously,” said Lord. “Our president has tainted peace for the foreseeable future. He turned his slogans into something that is perceived by the public as ‘Shimon Peresian’ subversion against the Israeli government.”

Another journalist wrote that Paul McCartney was voted greatest musician of the 20th century only because John Lennon was dead, and Shimon Peres became President because Yitzchak Rabin is dead! Ouch!

Maybe I am missing something? Did Shimon Peres make peace and forget to tell us? Since Oslo is the situation better or worse? Is the President naked?

The President proudly told us that he has three children and three grandchildren. Wow. Ninety years old and three grandchildren. That really bodes well for the future of the Jewish people. If we all follow Shimon’s example we will have to give the Arabs 66% of Eretz Yisrael to satisfy Bill Clinton’s demographic predictions!

And whilst we are talking about family, Shimon (ne Persky) if you wanted a former Hollywood star, you could have invited your first cousin Lauren Bacall (nee Persky).

Dear Shimon, you look well and healthy, and I wish you many more years and many, many great grandchildren. Moshe Rabbenu was 80 when he changed direction and started a new career. You should leave politics, its obviously not your field, and go into the health and beauty industry.

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