In the end, we are all animals


As part of my application to Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I wrote a d’var torah on parashat Balak (my favorite in the Torah). Just in time for this Shabbat, here it is:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his text On the Genealogy of Morals, presents an existentialist question  for humanity to wrestle with: “We have never sought ourselves – how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?” In this almost Zen Koan-like charge, Nietzsche challenges us to acknowledge and realize the importance of active self-reflection. But for the non-existentialist, it might be asked why we should even want to find ourselves? And what should we do once we have found ourselves? Parashat Balak provides us with answers to these questions.

At first glance, Balak presents much that is challenging to the modern reader: a dramatic encounter between the Israelites and a hostile ruler at the edges of the Promised Land, a pagan attempt to curse the Israelites, prophecies on the future of the Jewish people, and a talking donkey to boot. What are we to make of this tale? In his reading of the parasha, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner posits that “taken literally, the whole story is obviously silly.” Theologians and biblical historians have read the story contextually as a case against false prophets and in support of the omniscience of God; Robert Alter teaches in his Five Books of Moses that the entire story is a polemic against paganism.

Yet we do not have to search far to find other stories that appear to be “silly” at face value (consider Jonah’s being devoured by a fish), and the Tanakh is replete with warnings against false prophecy and paganism; why should we need yet another narrative, particularly one so peculiar in content? Parashat Balak must hold greater significance than simply another admonishment of false prophets. To be sure, the Talmud calls this parasha “the Book of Balaam” (Yerushalmi Sota 5), singling out the character of Balaam and indicating that this particular story has an elevated level of importance.

Given that the phenomenon of a talking animal occurs in only one other instance in the entire Tanakh, many focus on the talking donkey as an example of the atypical narrative. But we must ask ourselves: what is ultimately more important – that the donkey spoke, or that the donkey saw? Consider Nietzsche’s imperative on the importance of active searching for something in order to find it. Whether taken as literally true or as allegory, Balaam’s donkey was able to see what humans could not. The donkey sees an angel of God, while Balaam merely stumbles upon it. What can we glean from this?

First and foremost, that Balaam’s donkey was able to see the angel before Balaam himself could has powerful didactic value. This teaches us about the importance of actively searching for God’s presence in our lives and of being open to God making God’s self known at times and in ways in which we least expect it. That Balaam is reproached by the angel for abusing his donkey communicates Judaism’s concern for the wellbeing of animals – a value that Talmud mandates through its teachings on tza’ar ba’alei chayim (Bava Metzia 32b). That Balaam was not able to see the angel itself, nor that his animal was trying to save his life, contains perhaps the greatest teaching of all. It presents a challenge to us to think about how to expand our vision when limited, and to find ways to see what we can’t. To be sure, the story challenges us in an existential way to think about how our own humanity may be limiting.

The notion of animals teaching humans is not foreign to Jewish thought, and the importance of animals in Jewish life is also not to be underestimated. The Midrash teaches that “the wisdom of animals often puts human beings to shame… hence God arranged them to be mute” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19). Kushner moves beyond his initial sarcastic reading of Balak to suggest that “even though it makes us uncomfortable, animals can and do know things hidden from human perception and people do routinely communicate with them.” Janine Benyus, an animal sciences and human innovation author, writes about the many things humanity can learn from animals, a concept known as biomimicry. Benyus teaches that too often we think about how to use animals as tools for human productivity and enjoyment, rather than as beings we can learn from. Rabbi Avi Orlow, picking up on the concept of biomimicry, argues that in Judaism, there is a precedent that animals are to be learned from and not just used. Orlow teaches that “we need to mimic the best of animal behavior… in the end we are all animals.”

Eventually, Balaam does come to see things; he prophesizes a significant future for the Israelites and through his words we receive one of the most well known prophecies in Judaism. In Hebrew, he says to the Israelites “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…”– “How good are your tents, Jacob…” Interpreting this text, the 19th Century Russian rabbi, the Malbim, teaches that what Balaam came to see was not what the Israelites were living in (tents), but literally how they were living with each other through moral goodness. The Malbim suggests that with his new vision, Balaam saw moral, not aesthetic beauty.

Because Balaam’s prophecies are the words of God channeled through his mouth, what does this suggest that God seeks of us? That we should seek goodness in others; that we should treat others (including animals) with kindness; that we should not inflate our egos – as Balaam did – to assume we can divine God’s will; and that we should be open to listening and learning from others, even those we may consider inferior (including animals). We learn how to accomplish this through the model of the donkey – by looking for those things that others can’t see, and by actively searching for moral goodness.

A Chasidic proverb reflects on the importance of searching and reflection as a pathway to self-improvement in much the same way Nietzsche does:

I cannot find redemption until I see the flaws in my own soul, and try to correct them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its own soul, and tries to correct them. But whether it be an individual or a people, if we shut out the realization of our own flaws we are shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent that we see ourselves.

Ultimately, in searching for ourselves and for God, we should consider:  if Balaam can learn from a donkey where to look, can we?

Ich spreche nicht Wissenschaft

My mom shared this teaching with me, from a Torah Study she lead on Tu BiSh’vat:

In our society, we rush from one task to another with hardly a moment to pause and reflect in a long week of work. Our culture tells us to do more, work harder, and buy more – an endless cycle which undermines our peace of mind and causes tremendous impacts on our environment. By not being present in the moment, we lose sight of what truly matters. Our hectic pace leads to using our planet’s resources more rapidly than they can be renewed, and leaving too little for others and future generations.

Rabbi Yonatan Neril

It’s odd… there is no shortage of scientific data that can teach us about the consequences of our actions that are leading to the deterioration of the planet. Of course, this assumes that you are of sound mind and judgement to not conveniently ignore or dismiss this data.

And yet – if you’re like me – that scientific data is incredibly hard to decipher. I trust it; I know that most of those doing environmental research are smarter than I and are worthy of my trust in this area. But I’m not a scientist, and the most of data doesn’t speak to me; at least not in my language.

So… I can read something like what Rabbi Neril writes, and come to the same conclusion as the scientists: the way most humans in the Western world live is not sustainable. We are undermining our own future. That we can come to the same conclusion from vastly different approaches – in essence, from two incredibly different languages – I think is a beautiful.

After Birkenau


Walking out of Birkenau along the train rails, I was talking with Stephanie about our reactions to visiting the site for the first time. As we talked about emotions and education and history and the future, our discussion turned to Israel and Zionism. So fitting that as we stepped off of the rails and exited the death camp – something millions never did – we had the modern redemption of our people in our minds and on our tongues.

Driving to Auschwitz


The bus drive from Krakow to Auschwitz-Birkenau is silent, punctuated only by the faint sounds of Polish radio coming from the front of the bus.

I try to listen to some music – Radiohead – but can only bring myself to play Israeli music. After an hour of driving, even that somehow seems out of place. They didn’t have iPods on the cattle cars.

It occurs to me that there are very few things in life that can silence a group of 40 teenagers. Driving to Auschwitz is one of them.

Divinely Inspired Dwellings


Vanity Fair has a profile of and interview with Moshe Safdie. It’s pretty good, but the real genius comes right at the end, when Safdie drops a bomb of Jewish wisdom and compares a home to the mishkan. It’s a brilliant analogy:

I put it to him that, even so, he was a long, long way from one of the founding fathers of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, and his credo, “A house is a machine for living in.”


“A house is not a machine!” he (Safdie) exclaimed. “It’s something else for living—but not a machine.”


“What is it?”


“That’s a good question.”


He thought for a few moments. “You know, there’s a good Hebrew word for it, mishkan.


He explained that in biblical terms it means a sacred place, a tabernacle, divinely inspired. (And there are rules laid down for building it.) But, for Moshe Safdie, the secular meaning of mishkan is a house—a sublime refuge midst the clamor of the world.

Low Davening Fruit

I was just leaving a comment on a new post by David Wilensky. He’s received an advance copy of part of the new Reform machzor – Mishkan T’shuvah – and he’s brainstorming the criteria he’s going to use to evaluate it on his blog. Go check out what he has to say. This prompted me to wonder:

Given that most of the people who go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are of the “twice-a-year” variety, shouldn’t a machzor be designed with this in mind?

If so, wouldn’t you – as an editor of this machzor – do everything you could to make it accessible and inspiring with the goal of encouraging these twice-a-year Jews to become thrice-a-year or whatever comes after thrice?

Wouldn’t you fill it with meaningful and explanatory commentary and inspiring readings that aren’t clumped together like they’ve been pulled from Bartlett’s Quotations? Wouldn’t you present it in an open and unintimidating way? Wouldn’t you make it beautiful and enjoyable to use?

Have you seen what most machzors look like today? (Hint: most don’t look like that, and those that do are cost-prohibitive).

Congregations work so hard to bring in members, and as any Jewish demographer will tell you, most are struggling right now. So on the very days during the year when the crowd is in the house with books in hand, shouldn’t congregations be equipped to fight the good fight?

If you were in marketing, you would bend over backwards for the opportunity to reach people in the way congregations can at the High Holidays.

Suppose you’re a marketing firm representing some company. Imagine a crowd of people have voluntarily sat down in front of a billboard you created advertising this company, having already purchased whatever it is the company sells. Now imagine that this crowd of people have also told you that they’re only going to sit there for five days, and then they’re leaving and not coming back for a year. To make matters worse, they won’t again be purchasing whatever it is the company sells until then. Sound familiar?

If you were that marketing firm, wouldn’t you do everything you could to entice the people to come back sooner? Wouldn’t you design a billboard that wasn’t just targeted towards the brand-loyal, but also to the fence-sitters and window-shoppers?

If you were that company, wouldn’t you demand that the marketing firm earn its pay by creating such a worthy campaign?

I’m not suggesting that a machzor is just a billboard or a piece of advertising collateral, and I’m not suggesting that a shul is just selling a product or service. There is unique spirituality and holiness among both. But there is also some resonance in these comparisons.

The twice-a-year crowd is often viewed with contempt and relegated to the back of the shul, since most assume that they only come out of a sense of familial obligation or Jewish guilt. Not being of this variety myself, I can’t speak for them, however I would assume that very few feel compelled to return to shul following the High Holidays. Indeed, the proof is in the pews. And to some extent, congregations allow this to be so by focusing their energy and attention instead on the regulars, since those regulars demand the attention.

But the twice-a-year crowd are low hanging fruit! They’re in the house with books in hand!

Most certainly there is a responsibility on the part of congregations to reach out in a welcome manner, create worship services that are engaging and meaningful, and do their job to reach these low hanging fruits daveners.

But in the major Jewish Movements today, most congregations use the standard machzor of that Movement. So isn’t there some responsibility on the Movement’s part, too? Isn’t there a responsibility to create a machzor that does everything that my imaginary marketing firm would do?

I say yes.

So as David evaluates the new draft of Mishkan T’shuvhah, I’m left wondering if it will be a product that is created cognizant and reflective of the majority of people who will be holding it, or if it will be a product that serves instead the vocal minority. I’m not going to judge the book by it’s non-existent cover by making any assumptions at this point. I just hope that Mishkan T’shuvah will be both an inspiring product for the brand-loyal Jews, and also an enticing billboard for the low hanging daveners.

Hummus, Random Christian Dude, and the Israeli on his Cell Phone

I was killing some time in the Milwaukee airport today, and I broke a couple personal rules. Well not really rules, but general guidelines.

1. I enjoyed eating airport food.
There’s this little cafe there called Alterra Coffee, that has a phenomenal menu of decent food and great coffees. And the guy working there didn’t look like he wanted to kill himself. I would actually go back there even if it wasn’t in an airport. Highly recommended if you’re passing through MKE.

2. I answered “yes” when asked by a stranger, “Are you Jewish?”
When the big, burly, clearly Midwesterner sitting next to me on the concourse leaned over and asked me this – having seen my kippah – it wasn’t as though I could lie, so I answered “yes.” Not really frightened, but certainly hesitant for what was about to transpire, I engaged in a conversation with Random Christian Dude (RCD).

Random Christian Dude laid the heavy one on me right away, asking me “Are you devout?”

Now devout isn’t really a word most Jews would use to describe their observance or beliefs, but I kind of knew where he was going, so I answered “Sure.” When Jews see my kippah, they often ask “Are you really religious?” Now I know the Christian equivalent is “Are you devout?”

(As an aside – I’ve never been asked this question by an Orthodox Jew, though I imagine most would make their own assumptions about my beliefs and practices. But it’s such a loaded and specious question to begin with anyways).

RCD – who turned out to be a pretty nice, if not awkward, guy – said that he considered himself to be a devout Christian, and assured me that he had the utmost respect for Jews, Judaism, and Israel (three distinct things that, while clearly intimately related, are not one and the same), and that “of course, as you know, Jesus himself was Jewish.” Pretty standard fare for an encounter between a Midwestern Christian and a Canadian-cum-New Yorker Jew.

Then things got interesting.

Random Christian Dude asked me if I was familiar with Genesis 6. Not being able to quote chapter and verse, but being pretty familiar with the beginning of the Torah, I answered “sort of.” RCD then launched into a series of questions about my perception of the nephilim, the story of Noah, why people destroy the earth, and what God’s intentions are for humanity.

I honestly had no idea what to say. I stumbled through some words about humanity’s responsibility for one another, and that Judaism places a huge emphasis on interpersonal ethical living, but pretty much I had no idea where RCD wanted the conversation to go. Plus, I was trying to enjoy my really delicious hummus wrap from Alterra.

Sensing I was a little overwhelmed, RCD backed off as I ate and checked my email. And then he walked away. I sat on the relatively comfortable airport lounge chair for a few minutes, trying to digest what just happened. And also my hummus sandwich.

And that’s when I overheard Hebrew being spoken, and saw the Israeli businessman talking on his cell phone who had watched the entire interaction, a coy smile on his face.

The Schizophrenic Jewish Hierarchy

I just read that at the JFNA General Assembly, Kadima MP Tzipi Livni addressed the crowd with a message of Jewish unity, calling for “dialog between the Jews of the Diaspora and of Israel to ensure that we would forever remain one people. That is how I see you when I stand here today… not as Reform Jews or Orthodox or Conservative.

Setting aside the cookie-cutter content of her speech, am I the only one that thinks when someone mentions the three major Movements of North American Judaism in the same breath, there’s an inherent resistance that takes place, our of fear of establishing a hierarchy?

I can imagine Livni’s speech-writers spending hours formulating that one sentence:

– Who do we put first? Reform? If we say Reform first, then we have to say Orthodox second, otherwise it will look like we’re going bottom up along the religious scale.

– There’s a religious scale?

– Of course there is, everyone knows there’s an identity problem in North American Judaism.

– Nu? Maybe we shouldn’t put Reform first, it makes it look like we’re starting at the bottom.

– Ok, so let’s start with Orthodox.

– No, then it looks like we’re starting at the top and working our way down.

– What is wrong with North American Jews?! Why can’t they just be like us Israelis and have one, state-sponsored religious stream. Things would be so much easier that way…

– Yes. Yes, they would.

– Ok, so what about Conservative Judaism… why don’t we start with them?

– If we put Conservative first, then it will be too obvious that we’re trying to avoid establishing a hierarchy.

– Ok, so let’s start with Orthodox, but then go straight to Reform so it looks like we understand religious pluralism.

– Then we’re leaving Conservative for last; people will think we’re making a comment about the dying state of their movement.

And on, and on, and on, and on…

For the sin of ranting far too much

With thanks to David Wilensky for sending this piece of wisdom my way.

Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l, the master liturgist who was the senior rabbi at the congregation where I now work, said the following. It seems to me much of the blogosphere could take these words to heart:

“So often my words precede my thoughts, and I feel humiliated. I am a fool more frequently than I am a sage! O God, show me how to keep quiet more often, at least until I have something real to say and someone who wants to hear it.”

Kein y’hi ratzon & shana tova.