I have Seen the Writing on the Wall
Parshat Balak 5779
This is a rerun of a previous Shabbos email. My wife did not re-give birth to our eight year old daughter, but there will be an update at the end of the email….
I have seen the writing on the wall…
and it is colorful. There are blue and orange streaks all across one wall of our dining room. That was my daughter’s attempt to make a mural of people eating a Shabbos meal. We have some bright pink scribbles at the bottom of the stairs that probably mean to say, “Here are the stairs, can you pick me up and carry me?” We have a whole lot of pen marks on the wall by my five-year-old’s bed, it must be the inner poet in her just flowing out onto the walls with a panoply of poetic prose. But the colors don’t stop there. We have shoeprints on our walls, permanent marker on our hand-painted credenza, and too many amorphous scuffs on the furniture to count.
I have seen the numbers on the clock…
and they read 3:27AM. I have been seeing similar numbers every ten minutes nightly from 1-5 AM for the past week. For these are the exact hours that my precious infant has chosen as fussy time. We call it the time she likes to dance with her parents, and she always leads. So while the world sleeps, my wife and I swaddle, stroll, swing, stroke, soothe, sing, and pretty much do anything else that will keep our little bundle of joy happy and quiet. My sleep deprivation is so severe (no one gave me a few weeks of paternity leave!) that I need toothpicks to keep my eyes open at work.
I have seen the bank account…
and it is leaking cash like a lobbyist in a politician’s office. One recent economic study estimates that in a baby’s first year, parents will spend approximately $6,800 on diapers, wipes, formula, baby food, clothing, strollers, and other baby products. (The average American baby goes through 3,796 dirty diapers before graduating. Lucky for us, our three year old is just graduating now, so at least we don’t have two dirty diaper makers in the house at once!) My own economic research has indicated that day camp tuition, food prices, children’s apparel and babysitting follow the trend of gasoline prices this past summer, which, if you hadn’t noticed, consistently headed north. Even after the first year of a baby’s life, they still continue to rip holes in bank accounts on a regular basis!
Children cost a lot, don’t contribute to a spotless home, and require an enormous amount of time. They limit people’s leisure activities, career opportunities, spending options, vacation venues, and beauty sleep. For these reasons, many people today push off having children until much later in life, or don’t have children at all. The more developed a society, the lower the birth rate. As a matter of fact, if it weren’t for all the folks from the developing world, the world population would be shrinking rapidly, as it already is in many developed countries. In many corners of the globe, children aren’t too popular
Yet, I couldn’t be more thankful to G-d for blessing our family with a new child last Shabbos, for entrusting our family with another soul. (Naomi is her name, and so far, eating, sleeping, and crying is her game.) Why is that? Why am I so happy to have brought upon myself sleep deprivation, economic drain, emotional strain, and a host of limitations?
Let’s look at this question from a Jewish perspective. Why is having children such a high ideal in Judaism? Why is it the very first mitzvah in the Torah? Why have Jews traditionally always had high birth rates?
In order to understand this let’s look at an even bigger question; What is the meaning of life
In the Torah, a name represents a being’s essence. If we want to discover the meaning of our existence, our name should have the key. The Sh’lah (1565-1630, Prague-Jerusalem-Safed) explains that man is called Adam in the Torah because the word adam relates to the world adameh, which means to imitate, to be similar to. Our role in this world is to try to imitate G-d, to be as divine as possible. That is the meaning of life. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 14:A) describes this in the following statement:
Rav Hama the son of Rav Hanina, further said: What does this verse mean, “You shall walk after the Lord your God”? (Deut. 18:5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah? Has it not been said, “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire”? (Ibid. 4:24) But [the meaning is] to follow the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.
But what is G-d like? We don’t see Him, we don’t hear Him giving lectures, and He’s never published an autobiography
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a.k.a. Ramchal, 1707-1746, Italy- Amsterdam- Israel), in his classic philosophical masterpiece Da’as Tevunos (The Knowing Heart), gives us a solution to our quandary. Even though we can’t see G-d, we can see His work, and from that we can discern the character of the Artist. We can see that G-d created a world even though, as a perfect being, He wasn’t lacking anything. If He didn’t create the world for any of His needs, He must have created it for our benefit, to give us the pleasures of the life and world He gave us. As the Ramchal says, “It is of the nature of the good to do good for others” (Da’as Tevunos, Chap. 18)
If G-d created this entire world just so that He would have entities into which to pour His goodness, then the ultimate way we can emulate G-d is by also creating entities into which we can pour our goodness. This explains why having children is such an ideal in Judaism.
True, when someone has a child, they must give up many of the luxuries they might otherwise have, but that is exactly the point! People should not have children for what they can get from them, not to fill any needs of theirs, but for what they can give to them. This is what should inspire us to make it through endless diapers, endure countless “painted” walls, live without sleep (another way parents emulate G-d), struggle to support a growing family, and cook a never ending stream of meals. Every one of those actions is an actualization of our purpose in this world.
Not only does having children help us emulate G-d, is it also the most transformative experience there is. It forces us to become selfless, to grow beyond ourselves, to live a life focused on doing for others. When we create that new entity, with the sole purpose of pouring kindness into it, we are creating another new entity, a new self.
It is with great gratitude to the Creator of the World that we gladly announce the birth of Naomi Burnham. She was born last Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, at 5:37PM, weighing in at 6”15 and 20 inches long. We hope and pray to see big things out of this little bundle of joy!
Update: Naomi is thank G-d doing great! We now call her NumZ (pronounced Numzee) and she is the only one of our children that gets called by a nickname. She is indeed bringing us tons of joy and nachas, and we’re thankful for every single dollar we spent, sleepless night we endured, and diaper we changed… Good things come to those who wait, and work, and work, and work!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha we read about Bilaam, the gentile prophet who embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. As his donkey is meandering along the road, it notices an angel blocking the path with a drawn sword. Immediately, the donkey reprograms his GPS and tries to take a detour through the fields. Bilaam, who can’t see the angel, beats his donkey, berating him for leaving the road. After similar events occur two more times, the donkey miraculously talks back to Bilaam and rebukes him sharply. G-d then opens Bilaam’s eyes and lets him see the angel. He then finally understands what has been causing the donkey to deviate from normal traveling procedures.
Let us study the sequence that led up to this whole showdown with the angel. After clearly seeing that G-d did not want him to curse the Jews, Bilaam persisted in asking again, and finally G-d gave him permission. As he set out on his journey, the Torah tells us, “G-d showed anger because he [Bilaam] went, and an angel of G-d placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants.” (Numbers 22:22) Rashi (1040-1105 CE, France), the primary commentator on the Chumash, tells us a bit about this angel. On the words “to thwart him” Rashi comments, “He was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning, so that he would not sin and perish.”
The Oznaim Latorah (written by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, 1881-1966, Lithuania/Israel) points out something interesting. This angel was brandishing a sword and threatening to kill Bilaam. Most people would see him as a frightening, angry, and disciplinarian angel. But Rashi is telling us that he was actually an angel of mercy trying to save Bilaam. Not everything is what it seems to be. Sometimes the person feeding you honey can be poisoning you, while the person forcing vile tasting medicine down your throat can be saving your life. It is a matter of pulling back and looking at the big picture.
This angel of mercy teaches us that sometimes (and only sometimes) the most merciful thing we can do is to be a strict disciplinarian. In dealing with our children it will give them structure, and will help them learn to build stable patterns that will last them their entire lives. In dealing with ourselves it can help us stick to a diet, finish projects we really need to finish, or push ourselves to constantly grow and strive for more.
Ultimately, we can let the donkey keep plodding down Dangerous Lane, but we would be much better off recognizing the caring of the AWBS (Angel Who Brandishes a Sword), and heeding his kind message before we end up having to take rebuke from a donkey!
This week’s parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.
Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people.
Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake.
While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth.
Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!)
Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.)
Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin sexually, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.
This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: He who walks in another’s tracks leaves no footprints. – Joan Relfank
Random Fact of the Week: Sixty percent of American men say they normally eat a hot dog in five bites or less.
Funny Line of the Week: The only reason people get lost in thought is that it is such unfamiliar territory.
Have a Sublime Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham