Parashat Balak: Some Tents, Some People and Some Wonder

For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 6, 2012

So the big news of the week: the Higgs boson. How can anyone even think to offer a drash today without talking about the Higgs boson? For those of you who spent the week in hiding, the Higgs boson seems to be the elusive particle that was somewhat misleadingly dubbed "the God particle" because of its role in creating mass from nothing. It is the result of a particle traveling through a "Higgs field," which is described as something like a universally omnipresent molasses. And as it passes through the field, this particle, for an almost immeasurably small instant, goes from having no mass to having mass, and then decays into other kinds of particles we already knew existed. This is a heyday for physicists who, through direct observation, are witnessing a piece of how this universe came into being and continues to come into being at every moment.

(Sassoon v'simchah)

The science around the Higgs is utterly unintelligible to me. A phenomenon both infinitesimally small and as large as the cosmos. It has implications, say the scientists, for theories around symmetry and even Supersymmetry. I have no idea what supersymmetry even means, although it sounds a bit to my ears like a comic book hero whose special power is the ability to instantly undo any Vidal Sassoon haircut. 

Mostly I love this news because it has added the quality of wonder to this week, a week that was otherwise all about tasks and anxieties. A week where most of the rest of the news was disheartening or annoying in some way. Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? Does anyone care?

No, a good dose of wonder is what we all needed. It's what I needed. And that's what Bil'am got, in this week's Torah portion. He got, unexpectedly, a big dose of wonder. It kicked him right out of his plans and fears and schemes and drove him into a moment of pure admiration that had a quality of surrender to it; a flow of speech that was reminiscent of speechlessness.

(Mah Tovu: Past Tents)

As you might recall, the story goes like this. Our people are camped on the outskirts of Moab. The king is unhappy and engages the seer Bil'am as a sort of a metaphysical hitman, to curse us. What follows is a jumble of backstage bickering, sniping between king and prophet, anxiety dreams in which God speaks, and a slow struggle forward despite the opposition of invisible armed angels and an unlikely talking donkey that had been waiting a long time to say its piece.

But in the moment, in that moment overlooking the vast encampment of Israelite tents, what comes out of Bil'am is nothing he had planned. It is wonder:

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov. How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,

Mishkenotecha Yisrael. Your dwellings, O Israel.

Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side,

As aloes which Adonai has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters.

Bil'am experiences a letting go of intentions and preconceptions and by choice or not, he gives way to the wondrous. It is almost a shrug of the shoulders, a shrugging off of the shmutz, and an opening to loveliness or vastness or minuteness or overwhelmingness. It is bowing before what is beyond us.

Of course it is not the tents themselves that stop Bil'am's curses before they can be uttered. Tents alone, however pretty, are tents; they are empty. They are only given mass, given meaning by their people. In fact, historically, there is some blur between the tents and those who inhabit them. Our Hebrew word for tent, ohel, shares a root - alef, heh, lamed - with the Arabic word 'ahl, as in the greeting 'ahlan wasahlan. In Arabic this root doesn't mean tent but rather "people" or "kinfolk" or "family." And sure enough, looking deeper into the Hebrew, it appears that tents came to be called ohel because they were symbolic of people, of families, the way in English we might use the word "banner" or "crest," if we came from an ethnic group that had things like banners and crests. Or in the way we use "house" to mean "family," as in the House of David or Windsor or Usher. Or the way we might even use the word household. In that way, a settlement was made up of ohalim - comprising both tents and people.

Mah tovu ohalecha, how beautiful these people. Like brooks, like gardens, like trees.

I've been wanting some Bil'am moments this week. Moments where I'm torn out of the pettiness of my daily life and my attention drawn instead to beauty; to the beauty of people, to the beauty of their tents. I notice that my anxiety is idling really high; I'm reacting strongly to the ugly stuff in the world and to the small stuff in my life. I feel nervous about my responsibilities for the High Holy Days; apprehensive about all the touring I've got between now and then. And I confess that I haven't quite gotten my game back since the death of Steve Norwick. It's a loss that has a lingering quality to it. So I've been needing some of the medicine of this wonder; wonder that can knock the other stuff out of my system.

And some of those moments of wonder have been pushing their way into my life despite my resistance.

My husband has a birthday on Sunday. Two nights ago I awoke with a start about this. I have repeatedly resigned myself to the fact that I am not young anymore. But I hadn't quite gathered that neither is he. I was startled by the thought. Because while I'm willing to spend the years of my one life on him, it suddenly surprised me that he would be willing to spend the years of his one life on the far-more-difficult me. And I felt wonder.

Mah tovu ohalecha. What a beautiful tent. What a wondrous person.

After dinner one night last weekend, our eleven-year old repeated what has become a meme for the next generation in my household, which is that since he's an atheist, he's therefore not Jewish. We grownups, for the umpteenth time, told him that you can't turn it off like a switch. We're a tribe, we're descended from, blah blah blah. But I could tell it made no impression, and of course in our queer tent, we've placed a much higher value on spiritual inheritance than on the accident of DNA, so an argument of Jewish genetics shouldn't make such an impression. He wandered off. The adults remained at the table, full of sadness. Then I heard my voice calling him back to his chair to sit with the grownups, and I began giving the speech I'd always shunned, the speech too cliche to even admit to. I gave the Jewish suffering speech. How our forebears suffered because they were Jewish and suffered in order to be Jewish. The Jewish suffering that gave rise to a hope for something better. The story of my great-grandfather who pushed a junk cart through Chicago streets; and my grandfather who was a salesman; and my parents who started a business, so that my sister and I could be the first to go to college. And the stories began to include not just my grandparents, but all of our grandparents. How the generations expressed their values by working for the future, struggling so that he, the 11-year old, could feel that safety was the natural state of things and that education and success were his due.

Yes, I gave the Jewish suffering speech. Shamelessly. And as I gave it, I felt such a pride in my ancestors and in my people.

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, what good people. And I felt so proud of the adults around the table, including the non-Jewish adult who cares so much that her children should honor the past that made them,

Mah tovu ohalecha, what good people. And through this whole speech, the 11-year old listened, and asked questions, and looked in our eyes, and didn't make a single wisecrack. How he received this transmission was altogether something new. I looked at him and felt proud.

Mah tovu ohalecha. What good people.

We are remarkable, human beings are. Capable of so much. We have spoiled the planet beyond the tipping point, they now say. Our leaders act out the most self-serving of dramas on the political stage. We allow our culture to create weaknesses in people and allow corporations to profit from those weaknesses.

But I can't quite despair. I can't yet feel hopeless. Because there are times that I look at people. I hear about people acting in the most beautiful and generous of ways. This is the 25th Anniversary of the Names Project AIDS Quilt. On the radio yesterday a caller told the story of an IRS agent who processed the estate return of a young man who'd died of AIDS. This young man had had no one. There were no family or friends taking care of his affairs. His burial was court-ordered and court-administered. The IRS agent went on to make a quilt panel in honor him, because he felt how wrong it would be for no one to remember. I heard this story and I thought, mah tovu ohalecha. How beautiful these tents. How wondrous these people.

Wonder. Appreciation. Letting down our resistance to seeing the good even in our adversaries - and there is so much good in all of our adversaries. This is the gift of mah tovu, the gift of Bil'am's blessing. That we might let ourselves look around at our loved ones, and our friends, and our heroes, and our favorite co-workers and our least favorite co-workers, and those who help us when we're sick and those who listen to us when we're in pain and those who do generous things quietly and those who try their best to raise their children and those who try their best to preserve the world and those who try to change the world and those who preach love and those who preach other things because they're afraid and those who dream and draw and make things and those who build supercolliders so that one day they can tell us more about how things came to be things to begin with. The people of the past who put us here, the people of the present who are trying so hard, and the people of the future that we want to be. We can look at all these things and give way to some well-deserved wonder, and say mah tovu ohalecha. How beautiful these tents. How wondrous these people.  Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river's side, as aloes which Adonai has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters.