Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balaam and the Place of Teshuva

This week's Torah portion is unique. It is the only parshah in which we have to take Moshe's word for what happened because no other Yisraelim were present. It's also one of the few parshiyot in which there is a non-Israelite prophet speaking on behalf of HaShem -- and he only has good things to say. (The rabbis say that there were seven non-Israelite prophets.)

In a nutshell: Balak the Moabite is freaked out, so he hires Balaam (a well-known sorcerer) to curse the Israelites. Balaam goes off to get his curse on, when HaShem interjects (through the talking donkey!) and fills his mouth with a whole bunch of positive prophecy. Balak sends a bunch of Moabite women to seduce the Israelites, it works for a bunch of them, resulting in their deaths and Phinehas doing something rockstar-like.

So what's interesting to me in this week's parshah? Well, there's the fact that Ruth -- Judaism's beloved convert and the line of the Messiah -- is descended from Balak (his great, great, great, great something or other granddaughter, to be precise). As the story goes, Ruth was blessed with becoming an Israelite because of the one thing that Balak might have done right (the 42 sacrifices he offered while trying to sway HaShem's opinion, even though Balak was using it as bribery rather than tribute). I guess, from my perspective, it appears that Ruth had to do some major teshuva for being descended from some pretty callous and hateful individuals.

No, to focus on the convert would be predictable (and not so interesting). Thus, I want to focus on the idea that HaShem is always with Israel.
"No harm is in sight for Jacob,
No woe in view for Israel,
The Lord their God is with them (יי אלהיו עמו)
And their king's acclaim in their midst." (Numbers 23:21)
On this, the Baal Shem Tov quipped,
"A Jew is never alone: Every place he goes and everywhere he stops -- Adonai, his God is with him."
So, what do you think? Is a Jew ever alone? The amount of mitzvoth to which we are commanded would suggest that if HaShem isn't always with us, then we sure as well better think HaShem is with us. It's a hyperconscious way of life, to always feel and know that HaShem is there. Women are gifted with tzniut and men with tzitzit. Physical incarnations of reminders. (And yes, there are many more, but those are the basics.)

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk said in this regard,
"A person who goes through life with a commitment to the Godly, the Heavenly King resides with him; if he does act sinfully then the Holy One does not take a great note of it." (Rashi similarly said: "The Holy One does not see the sins of Jacob, - when they transgress His words, He does not investigate after them.") 
So, living a life committed to the hyperconsciousness of the ever-presence of HaShem in our lives grants us a little ... "get out of jail free" card? 

Rabbi Israel Rhizin said that even when a Jew sins, 
"even in the depths of depravity there remains within him a spark of godliness; a speck of the light of t'shuvah still flickers in his heart -- even at the time of sin. "
Basically, HaShem gives us a lot of credit, respect, and holds an eternal hope for us. You can always come back, Judaism says. HaShem has been holding out for us to get our you-know-what together for a long time. Don't we owe it already?

The idea of teshuvah is something that's very important to me these days. Like any Jew who has gone astray, I'm in a mode of hardcore teshuvah. I've made mistakes, I've made stupid stupid stupid mistakes that I knew were wrong. And yet, for some reason, HaShem stayed with me and guided me back and is gifting me with amazing happiness and insight into who I am and where I'm going. 

Even in my stupidest moments, HaShem was with me. So I would be inclined to take Balaam's prophecy with much truth and confidence. I can only hope that Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk was right and that my sins were put in Column Z and not Column A.