Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Numbers 19:2)

Many other religious traditions are built on articles of faith (think about the Nicene Creed in Christianity.) My own tradition Judaism is built on actions known as mitzvot (commandments.) Jewish tradition teaches that there are 613 commandments. Some of those commandments we can know by thinking about the world, what the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas called “natural law.” It is obvious that murder and stealing are wrong, while charity and honoring parents are right. Some we can understand because they serve a clear religious purpose. Resting on the Sabbath, eating matza as we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, or fasting on Yom Kippur to seek atonement make sense.
But there are many commandments that seem to make no sense. Why should we avoid mixing wool and linen or not eat meat and milk together? The Rabbis have a name for such a commandment chok or decree. The commandment is in the Torah and we are expected to follow it, even if we do not understand it.
The classic example of such a chok is at the beginning of this portion. A person who is ritually impure by being near a dead body cannot enter the Holy Temple. They had to become ritually pure once again. This was done using a red heifer and mixing its ashes with cedar, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The mixture was then poured on the person who was ritually impure. They would become pure, but the person doing the pouring would become impure. It is a strange ritual that seems to defy logic. Nonetheless, many deeply religious Jews are searching for a red heifer today so they can reintroduce this ritual. (The television show Dig was based on this premise.)
Why this ritual? The Midrash shows as discussion between a pagan and Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai. The pagan asked if this ritual was a form of witchcraft, and the Rabbi answered yes. The pagan was satisfied with that answer and left. But then the Rabbi’s students asked, “You pushed him off with a reed. But what will you say to us?” Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai answered, “By your lives, a dead person does not make things impure and the water of the red heifer does not make things pure. Rather God said, I have decreed a decree, and you have no permission to transgress what I have decreed. This is a chok of the Torah.” (Numbers Rabbah 19)
The question of whether the commandments are arbitrary decrees from God or have a purpose has fascinated Jewish thinkers through the ages. In Hebrew we call it ta’amei hamitzvot, “the reasons for the commandments.” The first great Jewish philosopher who tried to systematize Jewish tradition, Saadia Gaon, believed that all the commandments were rational. Even ceremonial laws serve a rational purpose. Saadia gives the example of a wealthy man giving a poor man a job for his benefit. So God gave the Jewish people ritual laws to allow people to observe them and receive a reward.
The great philosopher Maimonides was also a rationalist. He believed that all the ceremonial laws of Judaism were meant to wean people away from idolatry. Even animal sacrifice was necessary because that is how the pagans worshipped God. In a perfect world animal sacrifice was not necessary, but in the world at the time such sacrifice was necessary. Perhaps Maimonides was one of the first who saw commandments as applying to a time and place.
The mystics took a different view towards the commandments. There are divine sparks hidden everywhere, and each commandment, no matter how obscure, serves to release these divine sparks and return them to God. From a mystical perspective God is broken, and each commandment helps put God together again. Many Jews say explicitly a short prayer that they are doing a commandment to reunite God.
Perhaps the answer is that even commandments we cannot understand have a purpose. They are acts of faith that connect us to God.


“Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  (Numbers 20:10)

This week’s portion contains the famous story of Moses striking the rock twice to bring forth water.  The people complain of a lack of water.  According to tradition, Moses’ sister Miriam had provided water to the people through her miraculous well.  But now Miriam had died, and there was no more water.  The people complain once again, so Moses with Aaron gather the people before a rock.  God says to speak to the rock, but Moses strikes the rock twice after chastising the people.  “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock.”

Because of this incident, God punishes Moses together with his brother Aaron.  They will not be permitted to enter the Holy Land.  On a cursory reading, the punishment seems harsh for the crime.  Moses must give up a lifelong dream for the sin of hitting a rock.  Even Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado sings. “Let the punishment fit the crime.”  What was Moses’ crime that deserved such a punishment?

The Rabbis give multiple answers.  But what seems most obvious is that Moses could not control his anger.  The people are thirsty, and rightly upset.  And Moses pours out his wrath on the people.  Aaron, usually the peace maker, does nothing to stop him.  Then Moses angrily strikes the rock not once but twice, and water pours out.  Moses will not lead the people into the Land.  As Reish Lakish says in the Talmud (Pesachim 66b), “Any person who becomes angry, if he is a scholar his wisdom departs from him, and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him.”  Reish Lakish then brings the example of Moses, a man who could not control his temper.

The Rabbis identified anger with the evil inclination (yetzer hara).   I recall years ago visiting a man in jail, arrested for physical abuse against his wife.  He admitted that he has a bad temper.  “God made me that way, it’s in my genes!”  He was quick to blame God rather than himself.  Even God is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).  God may be slow to anger.  But the Biblical God certainly becomes angry; read any page of the prophet Jeremiah.  One can ask the question, is anger always bad?

I teach ethics at two local colleges.  One of my favorite lessons is about the philosopher Aristotle.  Aristotle taught virtue ethics, how to live a virtuous life.  According to Aristotle, one must establish habits of virtue.  And this means finding what Aristotle called “the Golden Mean.”  For example, courage is the Golden Mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.  Generosity is the Golden Mean between stinginess and extravagance.  Good humor is the Golden Mean between moroseness and buffoonery.  What about anger?  Is there a Golden Mean?

Nobody likes a person with a quick temper, who constantly loses their cool.  Anger quickly turns to wrath, considered a deadly vice.  As the Bible teaches, “A hot-tempered person provokes a quarrel, but a patient person calms strife” (Proverbs 15:18).  Both Aristotle and the Bible would consider being slow to anger as a virtue.  But what of someone who never gets angry, who goes through life with total passivity?

In the Bible, Moses spots an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave.  He looks this way and that but sees that nobody is willing to act.  Moses slays the Egyptian and rescues the slave.  Perhaps God chose Moses to lead the Israelites due to his willingness to take action in the face of cruelty and injustice.  Anger has a place.  It motivates us to confront injustice and evil.  Judaism is about confronting what is wrong in the world and trying to transform it.  That is why the late Rabbi philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL.  He said that he was “praying with his feet.”

We need anger to fight injustice.  But anger out of control becomes a force of destruction.  Aristotle taught that we should always seek the Golden Mean, the middle ground between extremes.  With anger, there is a middle ground between out-of-control rage and passivity in the face of injustice.  God gave us the gift of anger to seek that middle ground.


“Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  (Numbers 22:28)

Last week I was privileged to perform the wedding of a lovely couple.  Both had been widowed at too young an age, and they met while walking their dogs at the local dog park.  I do not know precisely what happened at the dog park, how these two people began chatting.   They told me that they spent hours there talking.  As I think about their story, I wonder if they dogs had something to do with the match.  Dogs seem to know what their masters need.

Today dogs are far more than pets.  We use them as service animals, trained to meet the needs of their owners.  We use dogs to sniff out drugs and bombs at airports.  I have even heard stories of dogs who have been trained to sniff out cancer and other diseases.  It is a shame that a dog cannot dial 911 in an emergency, but I have heard of dogs barking until help arrived.  It is fascinating to think about the inner life of our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom.

Dr. Doolittle famously sang, “If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it.  Chatting with a chimp in chimpanzee.  Imagine talking with a tiger, chatting with a cheetah, what a neat achievement it would be.”   Philosophers have speculated what kind of inner life animals have.  Rene Descartes believed that animals have no inner life, they are merely automatons, like little robots.  Even in his lifetime, many people challenged Descartes.  It is clear to most of us that our dogs and our cats have inner lives.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an extremely influential essay on philosophy of mind called, “What is it like to be a bat?”  (First published in 1974).  Nagel’s claim is that there is something that it is like to have the consciousness of a bat, to navigate using echolocation.  But we humans can never conceive the inner workings of the mind of a bat.  Nagel picked a bat because it was the most extreme case.  But I imagine we humans can never truly know the minds of our dogs or cats.  (A dog and a cat are different.  A dog says, he feeds me and cares for me, he must be king.  A cat says, she feeds me and cares for me, I must be king.)

Jewish tradition speaks of how we can learn from animals.  The Talmud teaches (Eruvim 100b), “Even if the Torah had not been given, we can learn modesty from the cat, the prohibition of stealing from the ant, forbidden marital relations from the dove, and proper marital relations from the rooster.”    The details of these lessons are in the Talmudic commentaries on this passage.

Jewish tradition does teach that only humans have the capacity to make moral decisions.  Only humans ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, an act that raised us above other members of the animal kingdom.  The Rabbis taught that we humans have two inclinations, good and evil.  Animals have only one inclination, or instincts.  If a coyote steals a farmer’s sheep, it is not sinning, simply following its instincts..  Or as I sometimes put it, “a horse does not need to fast on Yom Kippur.”

Nonetheless, sometimes our animals have a better sense of right and wrong than us humans.  That is precisely what happens with Balaam’s donkey in this week’s portion.  Balaam is journeying to curse the Israelites, a journey not approved by God.  Eventually God will change the curses to blessings.  Three times the donkey sees an angel blocking his way and bucks, and three times Balaam hits the donkey.  Finally, the donkey turns and speaks to Balaam, “What have I done that you have beaten me these three times.”  Balaam is so angry that he is not even surprised by the talking donkey.  He tells the donkey that if he had a weapon, he would have killed him.  (Perhaps this is proof that we need to keep weapons out of the hands of angry people, but that is a topic for another time.)

Animals have minds.  And sometimes animals have more wisdom than humans.  Perhaps we can learn from the animal world.  If only we could talk to the animals.


“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.”  (Numbers 20:1)

This week we read about the death of Moses’ older sister Miriam.  There are many passages throughout the Torah and Midrash that indicate the greatness of Miriam.  That is why she is known as Miriam HaNeviva “Miriam the Prophetess.”  In fact, in our home we have introduced a relatively new tradition to our Passover Seder.  We place a cup of water for Miriam alongside the cup of wine for Elijah.  I bought a cup showing Miriam playing the tambourine, a scene from the Torah.

Miriam’s greatness begins when she was a child.  According to the Midrash, Moses’ parents separate when Pharaoh decrees that all baby boys should be tossed into the river.  Miriam convinces her parents to come back together.  “Pharoah’s decree may be overturned, but by not having children, your decree will last forever.”   Moses’ parents reunite and baby Moses, the savior of the people Israel, is born.

When Moses’ mother places him in a basket to float down the river, Miriam follows to assure the baby will be all right.  Pharaoh’s daughter rescues baby Moses and Miriam arranges her own mother to act as a wet nurse, allowing the baby to survive.   One can surmise that Moses, growing up in Pharaoh’s home, also learns of his heritage through his birth-mother nurse.  Miriam’s role is vital in the redemption of Israel from Egypt.

Later, after the crossing of the sea, Moses leads the people in the Song of the Sea, which has become part of our daily liturgy.  Miriam takes the women aside, while holding a tambourine, and leads the women in song and dance.  Her leadership and central role in the journey through the desert are obvious.

Nonetheless, perhaps Miriam’s most important role appears in this week’s portion.  Miriam dies, and immediately the people complain about the lack of water.  Tradition teaches that Miriam had a well that provided water during the years of wandering.  The well was one of the last miraculous things God created at the last moment before Shabbat.  When the Miriam dies, the well dries up.   This leads to the famous scene where Moses hits the rock to provide water for the people.   Our Passover cup of water for Miriam is a reminder of her miraculous well.

Having said that, even the most virtuous person has moments of weakness.  For Miriam, it was the incident we read a few weeks ago, when she and her brother Aaron complained about Moses’ black wife.  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he married” (Numbers 12:2).  Cush is the Hebrew for Ethiopia and for those with dark skin.  They were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, cursed by their father.  Both Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moses’ wife, but Miriam seems to be the ringleader.  She is the only one punished.  God afflicts her with tzaraat, a skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy.  Miriam’s skin turns white, and she is forced to separate from the community for a week.  It is almost as if God is saying, “You are going to complain about someone with black skin, I will show you what it is like to have white skin.”

Was Miriam racist?   She was a truly decent person.  But she had a moment of weakness.  As a song in the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q teaches, “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.”   The lyrics continue, “Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.  Look around and you will find, no one’s really color blind.”  Perhaps the story of Miriam appears as a warning to all of us.  We all have the potential to be prejudice (from the word pre-judge) of some people based on skin color, ethnicity, religion, and multiple other superficial factors.  It is a tendency we should fight.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a color blind society, where people are judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”  Long before King, the prophet Malachi had the same dream.  “Have we not all one father?  Did not one God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10).



“Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  (Numbers 22:28)

I have always enjoyed the comedian and HBO host Bill Maher.  However, I do not always have patience for his anti-religion rants.  I remember him speaking about Francis

Collins, a brilliant scientist, the leader in mapping out the human genome, and a deeply religious Christian.  Maher said, “I cannot believe the scientist Collins believes in talking snakes.”

A talking snake appears in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden story.  This week’s portion has a different animal, a talking donkey.  The donkey is bringing the heathen prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam will be paid nicely for his efforts.  Three times the donkey sees his path blocked by an angel, refuses to move forward, and receives lashes from Balaam.  Balaam does not see the angel.  Finally, the donkey talks back, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times.”   If I were on Bill Maher’s show, he might ask me, do I believe in talking donkeys?  I would have to answer yes.  Let me explain.

The Talmud says that the mouth of the donkey was one of ten items created on the sixth day, shortly before the first Shabbat.  In other words, the talking donkey was not some kind of miracle, with God changing the laws of nature.  Rather, it was built into nature itself.  How so?  How can a donkey talk?  To understand, we must introduce the idea of mythos.

The scholar of religion Karen Armstrong, in her wonderful book The Case for God, speaks of two kinds of truth, logos and mythos.  Logos is scientific truth, events that literally happened as described.   We do not turn to the Bible to learn logos.  Or to quote Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.  The stuff that you’re liable to read in the Bible.  It ain’t necessarily so.”  The Bible is not about logos but mythos.  Mythos refers to narratives that may not be literally true but teach us profound truths about the universe.  Mythos refers to religious truths, that teach us our place as human beings in the universe.  The story of the talking donkey is mythos.

What truths about humanity does the story of the talking donkey teach us?   One of the deepest lessons of the Torah is that human beings are essentially different from animals.  Human beings make moral choices.  Animals simply follow their appetites and their instincts.  If our dog jumps on the kitchen table and steals the turkey, we would not say that the dog sinned.  It was simply doing what dogs do.  Humans, on the other hand, can make moral choices.  That was the lesson of Adam and Eve eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (tempted by that talking snake.)  As humans, we know right from wrong.

In the story of Balaam and the talking donkey, the roles are reversed.  The donkey knows right from wrong.  He sees the angel standing in the roadway.  The man, blinded by visions of wealth, does not see the angel.  Therefore, he becomes violent and acts out from his appetites.  In this story, the animal becomes the human, and the human becomes the animal.   It is a story about what happens to humans when we lose our sense of right and wrong.   Often humans stop making moral decisions and live by their appetites.  This is particularly true when they are blinded by greed.

The story of Balaam and the talking donkey is a true story.  It is true not as logos but as mythos.  It is not scientifically true, but it is religiously true.   Temptation turned a human into an animal.  The miracle teaches therefore, that an animal became a human, in order to teach the human a lesson.  This is a profound truth that every human needs to hear.

Too often we humans make the mistake of mixing up mythos with logos.  We look at the Bible as if it is a scientific treatise.  But it ain’t necessarily so.  The Torah is not about science.  It is a profound document which teaches truths about what it means to be a human being.


“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!”  (Numbers 24:5)

This week we read a long double portion.  We read about the ritual of the Red Heifer and of Moses striking the rock.  We read about the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  We read about the pagan prophet Balaam, hired to curse the Israelites and confronting his talking donkey.  And we read how God changed Balaam’s curses into blessings.

Perhaps the most famous words of Balaam are said whenever Jews enter a synagogue, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel.”  The rabbis interpreted this as speaking about the tents, and ultimately the homes, of the Israelites.  They taught a wonderful insight.  As the Israelites wandered in the desert, no tent had a door facing the door of another tent, so people could not look into each other’s tents.  The Israelites had a realm of privacy.  This message is vital in a world where so many people particularly young people, put everything up on social media.  Our homes ought to be sanctuaries where we can find respite from the world.

Nonetheless, throughout this pandemic, our homes have changed.  They are no longer places to escape from the pressures of the world.  Our homes have become our worlds.

Our homes have become our offices.  My dining room table has become my desk and my computer has become my outlet to the world.  I conduct services twice a day from my dining room.  More and more of us are working from home, I realize that will probably continue even as the world begins to open up.

Our homes have become our schools.  Home schooling used to be reserved for religious families and others who liked marching to their own drummer.  Today everyone is learning how to turn their home into a classroom.  I teach college, but my lectures have moved from a classroom to Zoom on my computer.

Our homes have become our restaurants.  Eating out was against the law for several months and is still considered risky by many.  People find themselves cooking each and every night, or if they do not cook, eating take-out in their kitchen.

Our homes have become our theaters.  Movies, concerts, and plays are shut down, and our television has become the only source of entertainment.   Streaming services are growing, but the poor people who earn their living entertaining, actors, musicians, and stagehands, are struggling.

Our homes have become our gyms.  We are doing Zumba to YouTube videos, taking Zoom Pilates classes, or if you are like me, taking long walks in the neighborhood.  I am seeing neighbors I rarely see.  “Shelter at home” has become our watchword.  Homes are wonderful places.  But often, if a lot of people are living at home together, homes can become difficult.  Many people feel that there is no escape from home.

How do we live at home with other people without driving each other crazy?  I think about the story of the man with a small farm and a smaller home who goes to his rabbi.  “Rabbi, I am going crazy.  I have a big family and a tiny home; my kids are always underfoot and there is no escape.  What should I do?”  The rabbi tells him to bring some chickens into his home and come back in a week.  A week later he says it is even worse, so the rabbi says to bring some goats into his home.  A week later the rabbi says to bring a cow into his home.  The man is beside himself.  The next week he goes to the rabbi one last time.  The rabbi tells him, “Take the chicken, the goats, and the cow out of your home.”   The man comes back a week later.  “Thank you, rabbi.  My home is so much better now.”

The story is meant to be humorous with a strong moral lesson.  It could always be worse.  We do not appreciate what we have until we think about how it could be worse.  It may be difficult staying home until we think of those who are homeless.  Next time we leave home and come back, let us kiss the mezuzah and thank God for the blessing of our homes.

“They marched on and went up the road to Bashan, and King Og of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in battle.” (Numbers 21:33)
There is a wonderful scene in the Broadway classic show The King and I. Anna Leonowens, tutor to the children of the King of Siam, is teaching the children. Shortly she will break into the standard song Getting to Know You. She has a map which shows a giant Siam, much bigger than the country’s enemy Burma. Anna tells the children that she has brought a more accurate map from England. She puts up that map, and the children see that Siam is really a tiny country. The king’s son becomes quite angry with her; Siam is a giant country, not the little country on the map. He thought only a giant country was worthy of respect.
It is one of the oldest stories in the world to have the little guy defeat the giant. The legend goes back to this week’s portion. Israel, after wandering through the wilderness for nearly forty years, defeats two kings, Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. Sihon refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. Og, also an Amorite, was a giant. A generation earlier the spies had spoken about giants in the land. They were terrified and wanted to turn back. Now they faced a giant in a war. He was one of the Rephaim, giants left from the early days of creation. According to Deuteronomy, “Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead now in Rabbah of the Ammonites, its nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit” (Deuteronomy 3:11). A cubit is the distance from an elbow to a fingertip, about a foot and a half. It was a bed some fourteen feet long, far bigger than the average king size bed. (Where did Og get his sheets? Was there an Amorite Bed, Bath, and Beyond?)
Of course, the classic story of the little guy facing the giant is the story of David and Goliath. Goliath of Gath, the giant of the Philistines, mocked the Israelites. Who would dare to face him? The young shepherd David stood before Goliath and listened to his mocking words. Goliath spoke and David responded, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted” (I Samuel 17:45). David took out his slingshot and shot Goliath in the middle of the forehead. Goliath fell over dead. David became the great hero of the Israelites, contributing to King Saul’s jealousy of him. This is the classic story of the little guy overcoming the giant. We use the phrase “David and Goliath” whenever we speak of the underdog overcoming the big guy.
We saw it in the news last week. Venus Williams is a great tennis player who, together with her sister Serena, have dominated the sport. And yet in round one of Wimbledon, a fifteen-year-old girl named Coco Gauff defeated her. It was a true example of the underdog defeating the champ, and Gauff became a media darling. The young athlete lasted two more rounds before being eliminated. It was a modern David and Goliath story, with the underdog coming out on top.
We humans love giant killers. We love it when the underdog defeats the expected winner. We love it when Jack defeats the giant who comes down the beanstalk. We love it when the American hockey team defeated Russia for the Olympic gold medal. We love it when Joe Namath’s underdog New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and when the surprise dark horse candidate beats the expected winner in the primary. The entire world cheered little Israel when it defeated the giant Arab armies in the Six Day War.
Unfortunately, too many today believe that Israel has become the giant. Let’s return to our map example. When I show those who accuse Israel of being a giant a map of the Mideast, they realize that Israel is tiny, about the size of New Jersey. The Arab countries are massive. In the end, size does not matter. Whether it is the ancient Israelites defeating Og, David defeating Goliath, or Israel defeating those who would destroy her, overcoming the giant is one of the most appealing human myths. Everyone loves a giant killer.

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5)
Allow me to share a memory of my childhood in Los Angeles. As a child, I was never allowed in my parents’ bedroom. It was off-limits to my brothers and me. My parents truly believed that they needed a realm of privacy. I recall only a handful of times when I entered that room, mostly when I was sick. My wife and I were different kinds of parents. When my children were growing up, they came into our bedroom all the time. Often, I would wake up in the morning and find one of my three children asleep on the floor. Were my parents correct or were we correct? It raises the question; do we deserve a realm of privacy?
This week we read the story of the heathen prophet Balaam, whom Balak hires to curse the people Israel. He was the one who is confronted by his talking donkey. He climbs a hill overlooking the people Israel and tries to pronounce the curses. But God changes his words as they come out of his mouth, turning his curses into blessings. Perhaps the most famous line Balaam pronounces is the verse we sing whenever we enter a synagogue. Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). Balaam praises the beauty of the homes of the people Israel.
The Talmud shares a fascinating interpretation of Balaam’s words. What was so beautiful about Israel’s tents and dwelling places? No door faced any other door and no window faced any other window (Baba Batra 60a). Nobody could open their door and see into the door of another family. Nobody could open a window and look through the window of another family. People deserve a realm of privacy in their homes. This became a point of Jewish law. If two homes share a courtyard, it is forbidden to build the homes so that doors and windows face one another. I suppose my parents, although not the most Jewishly traditional, understood the wisdom of this teaching.
I fear that in our contemporary age we have lost that realm of privacy. Not only do our doors open so that we can see one another, and not only do our windows face each other. Many of us are apt to post our private lives on social media. I do follow Facebook, although I am not on Twitter or Instagram, (at least not yet.) But I look at Facebook posts and often see too much information. I see pictures of people dressed in revealing outfits that would have been unthinkable in my parents’ generation. I see private information on everything from people’s love life to every detail of their physical health. I see conflicts people have with family members and problems they have at work. I look at people’s posts (which is probably my mistake but it is how I keep up with people), and often I think t.m.i. “too much information.” Social media tempts people to give up that realm of privacy.
This idea is particularly relevant for young people. High school and especially college students post pictures or videos on social medial of drinking, drug use, profanity, and other often antisocial behavior. Then they learn the hard way a few years later that a potential employer looks at their posts. I am sure that young people have been turned away from excellent jobs because of adolescent pranks made public. But young people often do not understand the consequences of their action.
One of the great lessons of Jewish tradition is the importance of having a realm of privacy in our lives. Judaism teaches the importance of covering some things up. When I teach these ideas to young people, I ask them a thought question. If they walk into synagogue and see a Scroll of the Torah lying open, what would they do. If they grew up with any Jewish background at all, they answer that they would find something, perhaps a tallit, and cover the Scroll up. Holiness is achieved when we cover something up. The same goes for our private lives. My parents understood that there needs to be something in the private sphere. Each of us should think about what we want to keep off limits. Let us rediscover the idea of a realm of privacy.

“Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.” (Numbers 20:11)
I have always been fascinated by the thought of Sigmund Freud. I understand that he had no use for religion. Although born Jewish, he believed that religion was a mass neurosis, God was infantile wish fulfillment, and ritual was obsessive-compulsive behavior. He broke with his student and colleague Karl Jung over the importance of religion. To Jung religion was important but to Freud it was a mere illusion. One of his most influential books was The Future of an Illusion. Still, there is much we can learn from Freud.
I find that Freud’s ideas reflect classical Jewish ideas. One of his most influential insights was the tripartite structure of the human psyche. Each of us is made of an id, deep inner drives such as the sexuality (Eros) and a death wish (Thanatos). They are part of our unconscious, a part of the human personality which Freud discovered. Then we have a superego, the voice of our parents and of the community, in fact of civilization, trying to tell us how to behave. This clash between the id and the superego is a source of human unhappiness. Another of Freud’s great books was Civilization and its Discontents. Finally, we have an ego, which tries to control and mediate between these two powerful forces.
The idea of a three-part psyche is not original with Freud. In ancient Greece, Plato saw the human psyche as a driver trying to control two wild horses. But for Freud, the ego is far weaker. The id and the superego have almost all the power, and only through psychotherapy can the ego find enough strength to overcome natural unhappiness. Much of human greatness such as art and science comes from the id being sublimated, redirected towards human creativity. But what does this have to do with Judaism?
Judaism teaches that humans are born with powerful drives or appetites, which uncontrolled can lead to great harm. In Judaism we call this the yetzer hara, or evil inclination. The yetzer hara corresponds to Freud’s id. Humans are also born with the drive to do the right thing, to control or even overpower our appetites and do good. We call this the yetzer hatov, or good inclination. The yetzer hatov corresponds to Freud’s superego. Life is an ongoing struggle between the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov, between the id and the superego.
But here is where Judaism differs. To Freud, the third part of the tripartite division of the soul, the ego, was extremely weak. It is like Plato’s poor carriage driver trying to rein in two runaway horses. Judaism would see the ego, or what would be called free will, as much stronger. The will can control the evil inclination. Or as the Talmudic sage Ben Zoma taught, “Who is strong? Someone who controls their inclination.” (Avot 4:1) Judaism also has an idea similar to Freud’s idea of sublimation. We need the evil inclination to accomplish anything worthy in life. But it needs to be redirected. “Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name . . . Without the evil inclination, no man would build a house, take a wife, or beget children.” (Bereishit Rabbah 9:7)
The idea of the tripartite psyche – the id or yetzer hara, the superego or yetzer hatov, and the ego or will, are vital to understanding human nature. We will explore it over the next few weeks. Let us take an example from this week’s portion. The tendency towards out-of-control anger is part of the evil inclination. Moses is unable to control his anger. The people are thirsty and cry out for water. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and bring forth water. Moses instead chastises the people with harsh words, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock!?” (Numbers 20:10) Moses then hits the rock with his staff twice, and water comes forth. As a result of this angry confrontation with the people, God forbids both Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land.
Is anger a bad thing? Controlled anger at the sight of injustice is the only way to change society. But anger, like any other inner drive, must be controlled. That is the lesson of both Judaism and Freud.

“Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (Numbers 22:18)
Last week I spoke about Freud and the inner drives we all possess, which he called the id. These drives, particularly Eros (the drive for sexual pleasure) and Thanatos (the violent death drive) are a fundamental part of the human psyche. Freud taught that these drives must be properly channeled or sublimated into creative activity. I compared Freud’s id to Judaism’s yetzer hara, evil inclination, which also must be channeled and directed. As the Rabbis taught, without the evil inclination no man would build a house, get married, or have a child.
What about greed, the desire for money? Freud believed there was a reason we speak about the “filthy rich.” To quote him, “In reality, wherever archaic modes of thought have predominated or persist – in the ancient civilizations, in myths, fairy tales and superstitions, in unconscious thinking, in dreams and neuroses – money is brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt.” One of Freud’s proteges, Melanie Klein, traced the desire for money to the Freud’s death wish, which often manifests itself as insatiable acquisitiveness. How does Jewish tradition view the desire for money? Is it as destructive as Freud and Klein would surmise?
Let us turn to this week’s story of Balaam, the heathen prophet with the powerful tongue. The King of Moab Balak sends prominent men who offer Balaam gold and silver to curse the Israelites. God tells him no. That should have been the end of the story. But Balak sends more prominent men who offer him even more gold and silver. Balaam’s eyes are blinded by money. He again approaches God who reluctantly says yes. Balaam did not accept the first no. In the end, Balaam learns a lesson about greed from a talking donkey. It is as if a mere animal has more ethical insight than the heathen prophet.
The story seems to prove that everyone has their price. Last week I wrote about anger. This week I want to write about greed. In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas, pronounced the mantra of the Reagan 80’s – “Greed is Good.” Of course, the popular reaction is that greed is not good, that greed is something that must be overpowered. Balaam’s behavior, ignoring God’s word when offered more money, is the epitome of greed. We have all heard that “money is the root of all evil.” Or as the New Testament teaches, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Many religions include a vow of poverty in their search for holiness.
But is greed truly evil? Is there something healthy about the desire for wealth? Like any other inner drive, it needs to be directed in a healthy way. If one uses the desire to educate oneself and gain skills, to work hard, and to be successful in the workplace, is that not a good thing? In fact, my tradition would consider wealth a blessing. However, if one becomes a Bernie Madoff, acquiring wealth by stealing from investors, that is evil. When seeking wealth, there are two fundamental questions a person must ask. The first is, was I totally honest in my business dealings? The second is, once I achieve the wealth, what will I do with it?
Was I honest in my business dealings? The Rabbis said that when we die and enter heaven, we will be asked a series of questions by the heavenly angels. One of the first is, were you totally honest in business? (Shabbat 31a) The Bible itself speaks of proper weights and measures. One may not move his or her neighbor’s landmark, which the rabbis interpret as not encroaching on someone else’s ability to earn a living. Sometimes people come to me regarding a business proposition that seems shady. I tell them, if you do this, what will you feel when you look at the mirror in the morning.
What will I do with my wealth? If wealth is a blessing, blessings are meant to be shared. We earn our money on condition that we give some of it away. Greed can be good if it is under control. Wealth, properly earned and properly shared, can be a blessing for the world. Unfortunately, there are too many people on Wall Street who have not learned that lesson.

“This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded, instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Numbers 19:2)
A few years ago a television show named Dig premiered on the USA network. It told the story of an American FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem who investigates the murder of a young archaeologist. He soon discovers a conspiracy by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians to force the coming of the Messianic Age. Never mind that in real life these two groups would never work together. It made for fascinating television.
Part of the conspiracy on the show involves the raising of a totally red cow. The conspirators keep the cow in the freezing countryside of Scandinavia before making arrangements to transport it to Israel. Why a red cow? It is essential for the ritual purification of Jews so they can once again build the ancient Temple on the mount in Jerusalem. Without such a red cow, everybody would remain in a state of ritual impurity, unable to even enter the area where the Temple once stood.
That is a television show, but in the real world there is a large sign near the entrance to the Temple Mount saying that Jews are forbidden to enter. One would think that the sign was put there by the Moslem authorities who control the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques on the site. The truth is that the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel put up the sign. No Jew can enter that area because Jews must be in a state of ritual purity, and because they might accidently step on the place where the Holy of Holies used to be. Ritual purity is a fundamental part of any messianic hope.
This week’s portion is focused on this strange ritual of the red cow and ritual purity. Why does one become ritually impure? Any contact with death is the major source of such impurity, even being in the same room as a dead body. Contact with a person who had contact with a body can cause such ritual impurity. That does not mean that one should avoid the dead. It is considered a great mitzvah (good deed) in Judaism to care for the dead. Only kohenim (priests who are descendants of Aaron the High Priest) are forbidden to go into a cemetery or near a body. Even they can attend the funeral of an immediate family member. And even the High Priest, the holiest of the priests, is obligated to handle a body if there is nobody else around do to it.
It is a mitzvah to care for the dead. But as a result, virtually everybody is in a state of ritual impurity. How does one become pure? The ashes of a red cow are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff and sprinkled on the person. To add to the strangeness, sprinkling the ashes makes the person ritually pure, but the person doing the sprinkling becomes ritually impure. Someone must make himself impure to make someone else pure. No wonder the rabbis called this enter law a hukkah, a law with no rational explanation.
Today nobody has found a red cow, so the entire ritual is theoretical. This does have one positive consequence. Since no one is ritually pure, there is no desire to rebuild a Third Temple in the site of the two mosques. Such a move to build a Temple in a place holy to Jews and Moslems would probably lead to World War III. In my humble opinion, I am happy that there are no red cows around. I am pleased to stay ritually impure.
What do we learn from this strange ritual? If death is the cause of impurity, then life is the cause of purity. I believe there are two forces at work in the world. One is the force of death, where things break down, things fall apart. I often call that force entropy. The other is the force of life where things come together, things build up. Often we are in a situation where we must choose between death and life. For example, I can use words to tear someone down, causing a little death in their being. Or I can use words to build someone up, infusing them with life. As the Bible says, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Perhaps the law of the red cow is teaching us to become a force for life.

“Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth and she said to Balaam, what have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28)
In a few weeks, I will be attending the biennial convention of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. I will be presenting a class called “Miracles: Does God Change the Laws of Nature?” Jewish (and Christian and Moslem) tradition clearly states that God, every now and again, reaches down from above and performs a miracle. The sea separates leaving dry land in the middle. The sun stands still in the sky. A staff turns into a snake and back into a staff. Or perhaps most fascinating, in this week’s portion, a donkey opens her mouth and talks.
Of course, we can interpret this story in a non-miraculous way. It was a dream or a vision, not reality. To use an old Greek term, it is mythos rather than logos. Logos means rational, scientific events. Mythos means narratives meant to teach lessons rather than provide literal truths. Aesop’s fables are a kind of mythos. The story of the donkey that talked back to Balaam is also a kind of mythos. It is meant to teach us that, when we lose are moral compass, even animals can see right and wrong better than us humans. It is a powerful lesson, but not literally true.
The story of the talking donkey does raise a deep religious question. Does God change the laws of nature? Does God perform miracles? Skeptics such as David Hume doubted the existence of miracles. He taught that we know about the laws of nature by empirical evidence. We know about miracles by eye witness accounts. Weighing one against the other, empirical evidence always outweighs eye witness testimony. “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”
I prefer the thinking of another philosopher, Benedict Spinoza. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community; personally, it is time to welcome him back. He wrote that people see the presence of God only when the laws of nature are overturned. They ought to see God in nature itself. Nature is the miracle, not changes in nature. Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, answered that he believed in Spinoza’s God.
I think that Spinoza got it right. Nature is the miracle. In fact, this is precisely the teaching of a classic Mishnah (Avot 5:7), “Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath of Creation at twilight.” It goes on to list ten items that we would consider miracles, including “the mouth of the ass.” The Mishnah is saying that these were not changes in nature but actually built into nature. God does not change nature. Nature itself was created in such a way that events we call miracles seem to happen.
Let me share another Jewish teaching that seems to portray the same idea. When God parted the sea, the Torah teaches that God brought a ruach kadim, usually translated “an East wind.” But the word kadim has a double meaning. It can also mean “an ancient wind.” In the 19th century the Hasidic Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev taught that God made that wind at the beginning of creation. To quote him, “God does not change or suspend the laws of nature in order to work miracles. The wind that divided the sea had been created for that purpose at the time of the creation of the world.”
Too often today we look for God to change the laws of nature in order to declare that something is a miracle. Perhaps a better understanding of miracles is to see an event as totally natural, within nature itself. When Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger landed the US Airways Flight on the Hudson River, saving all the passengers, it was declared “the Miracle on the Hudson.” But God did not change the laws of nature. Rather God gave Sully the wisdom and skill to perform in an extraordinary way.
We ought to see miracles in ordinary events. Or as Einstein so aptly put it, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

“Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is one of the most important thinkers of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. He developed the theory of the human unconscious. He described the three parts of the human psyche – the id, the ego, and the superego. And although Jewish, he strongly rejected religion, considering belief in God a mass neurosis. In fact, his view of religion is clear from the title one of his books on the subject, The Future of an Illusion.
Nonetheless, I believe that Freud’s thinking was far more Jewish than he would ever admit. Freud taught that within our unconscious are powerful drives seeking to manifest themselves, in particular the sexual drive and the aggressive drive. A healthy individual will learn to sublimate those drives, channeling them into healthy activities. For example, an artist may channel these inner drives into his or her art work. Without proper sublimation, the drives turn into unhealthy neuroses or even psychoses. Part of psychoanalysis is to use speaking, dream interpretation, and sometimes hypnosis to uncover and rechannel these inner drives.
Jewish tradition contains a very similar idea. We are all born with a yetzer hara, often translated “the evil inclination.” These are our inner appetites out of control. The object is not to remove the yetzer hara. There is a tradition that the rabbis were able to remove the evil inclination, and discovered that nobody went to work, nobody married, no chicken even laid an egg. These inner drives are necessary, but must be rechanneled, similar to Freud’s sublimation, towards a greater good. That is why Rashi makes the comment on the words “love the Lord with all your heart,” serve God with both your evil and good inclinations.
Freud also taught that we have a superego. This is the voice of our parents, the voice of our conscience, or the voice of civilization telling us what to do. That voice can make us extremely uncomfortable. That is why Freud called another of his books Civilization and Its Discontents. The superego is constantly struggling with the id, trying to get those drives under control to do what the voice of our mom and dad expects us to do.
Jewish tradition contains a very similar idea. We are born with a yetzer hatov, a good inclination, a drive to suppress our appetites and do the right thing. The rabbis taught that although the evil inclination is there from the beginning, but the good inclination is only there in potential. It must be developed as we grow up. Parents must teach their children to avoid evil and do good.
Finally, Freud said we have an ego. This is the conscious part of us struggling to maintain the balance between the id and superego, some would say buffeted between the demands of the id and the superego. To mix my metaphors, in Freud’s view it is like the driver of a carriage trying to control two strong willed horses. The ego is constantly being pushed in opposite directions.
In contrast, Jewish tradition gives much more power to the ego. We have the ability to make choices between good and evil, between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara. In the Cain and Abel story, the Torah pictures sin crouching at the door, but told Cain “you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7) In Deuteronomy the Torah says, “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) For Freud the ego is weak; for Judaism the ego is strong, able to make choices.
Let us apply these ideas to Moses, the great prophet who led us out of Egypt. Moses’ id, or his yetzer hara, was strongest when it came to anger. Anger is one of those inner drives which each of us needs to bring under control. Early in his life Moses used this anger for good by intervening when an Egyptian was beating an Israelite slave. Anger is necessary to step forward when one sees evil. But in the week’s portion Moses’s loses control of his anger after the people complain of thirst. Rather than talk to the rock as God commanded, Moses beat the rock with his staff and shouted, “Hear now, you rebels.” Because of his uncontrolled anger, God tells Moses that he will not enter the Promised Land.
Anger like all our inner drives, must be brought under control. It can be used for good, for fighting injustice. But as we learn from Moses, out of control anger can be destructive.

“But God said to Balaam, do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:12)
At the end of 1987, in the height of the Reagan era, the movie Wall Street was released. It starred Michael Douglas as the ruthless Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko. Douglas won the Best Actor Academy Award that year. And in the iconic line that came to symbolize an era, Gekko proclaimed, “Greed is good.”
Of course greed was not so good for Gekko. The movie shows how immoral he was including his practice of insider trading. The 2010 sequel begins once again with Douglas as Gordon Gekko getting out of jail and trying to reestablish a relationship with his estranged daughter. The message of both Wall Street movies, and of an era, is that greed is not good. For Christians, greed is one of the seven deadly sins. The Christian Bible speaks of the constant lust for more money. In the Catholic Church priests and nuns have taken a vow of poverty. The concern is that the desire for money will lead to sin and distract people from pursuing a life of holiness. Judaism takes a different approach, seeing the acquisition of wealth as a blessing, if and only if the money is acquired in an ethical way.
The power of greed to lead to sin is clear from the story of Balaam in this week’s portion. Balaam is a gentile prophet thought to have the ability to bless or curse a people with mere words. Balak the king of Moab sends messengers with money and gifts for Balaam if he will curse the Israelites. Balaam turns to God Who tells him that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are a blessed people. That should have been the end of the story. But it is not, for Balak sends even greater messengers with more money and more gifts. Balak must have thought that every man has his price.
When the offer of more money comes, Balaam again asks God’s permission to curse the Israelites, as if more money will get God to change his mind. God reluctantly gives permission, but Balaam’s donkey turns against him. In the end Balaam’s cursing turn to blessings, and he never earns the money. Angry, he tries a new tactic, leading Midianite women into a sexual orgy with the Israelites. What he cannot accomplish with curses he accomplishes with sexual promiscuity.
Balaam is the perfect example of greed out of control. He knew right from wrong but he allowed his desire for money to overwhelm his moral sense. He was the Gordon Gekko of his age, teaching that “greed is good.” But this raises an important question. Is greed, or the desire for money truly bad? Or is it unethical behavior in pursuit of money that is bad?
Last week I wrote about the yetzer hara or evil inclination. These are our appetites when they are out of control. We need these appetites if we are to accomplish anything in this world. I wrote about the Rabbinic passage where the Rabbis captured the evil inclination, and discovered that nobody went to work. Without the appetite for money people would be passive, not even trying to work to better themselves. Without greed, or a desire for money, nobody would work, nobody would invest, nobody would start a business, and nobody would go to school to try to better themselves. We need that appetite for money. But we need the appetite for money under control.
The problem is not greed or the desire for money. The problem is when we use unethical behavior for the purpose of earning that money. Balaam was willing to take a bribe to do something that God had told him was forbidden. Gordon Gekko was willing to be involved with insider trading and other shady business practices. Too many merchants are willing to have improper weights and measures, explicitly forbidden by the Torah, or other tricks to lead customers astray. There are doctors who steal from Medicare and lawyers who misuse clients’ escrow accounts. In every profession there are those who allow their desire for money to blind their ethical compass.
There is a Jewish tradition that teaches that when we arrive in the next world we will be asked a series of questions. One of the first questions is, were we ethical in our business practices? There is nothing wrong with doing what we need to do in order to earn a living. The question is, are we doing it in an ethical way. Our appetites, including our appetite for money, must be channeled in a way that serves God. Or as a prayer I often read teaches, may we act in a way that no fear of discovery haunts our sleep.

“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 20:1-2)
I love Midrash, the Rabbinic ability to join scriptural passages together to learn more insights. A perfect example of Midrash grew out of this week’s portion. We have a passage speaking of the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Then we have a seemingly unrelated passage speaking of the community running out of water. This will lead to the famous story of Moses hitting the rock and being denied entrance into the Holy Land.
What does the death of Miriam have to do with water? According to the Midrash, Miriam had a miraculous well that travelled with her, supplying water to the entire community. (I mentioned in my message last week that the well was one of the ten items God created on the sixth day at the eve of Shabbat.) When Miriam died the well dried up and the people were without water. Behind this Midrash is the thought that Moses gave the people the Torah. But without Moses’ sister giving them the necessary water to drink, there would not have been a Torah. It was the woman behind the scenes that allowed the community to survive. So has it been for the women in every generation.
The role of Miriam is being recognized among more liberal Jews today. Many people at the Passover seder pour a cup of water for Miriam to stand beside the traditional cup of wine for Elijah. Our synagogue has a beautiful, artistic Miriam’s cup we use each year. Not just the man Elijah but the woman Miriam has a place on our seder table.
The Reform movement has gone even further in recognizing Miriam. The traditional prayerbook speaks of Moses singing the words mee kamocha (“who is like you” taken from the Song of the Sea). But in the Bible Miriam pulls the women aside and sings the same song. The Reform prayerbook speaks of Moses and Miriam singing the song, bringing the feminine voice into the liturgy. The first time I heard Miriam’s name added to the traditional prayer when I went to a Reform synagogue, I found it a bit jarring. I am a traditionalist who likes the old wording. But even the old wording was once new. When I thought about it, I realized that there is a value of mentioning not just the male voice of Moses but the female voice of Miriam.
Harvard professor Carol Gilligan wrote a famous book about hearing the voice of women called In a Different Voice. Through much of Jewish history the voice of women has been silenced. The women supplied the water; they created the Jewish home. But it was the men who studied and taught Torah, it was the men who led services in synagogue, and it was the men who became rabbis. Miriam was part of tradition but her presence was not celebrated. Today, whether a cup of water for Miriam at a Passover seder or her name in the prayer before the Song of the Sea, we are recognizing Miriam. We are recognizing women’s voices.
This brings me to another Midrash, one that I have often quoted to my congregation. The Torah says on fourth day of creation when God made the sun and the moon, “God made two great lights, the great light to dominate the day and the small light to dominate the night.” (Genesis 1:16) Which was the moon, a great light or a small light? Originally it was a great light equal to the sun. But according to the Midrash, the moon complained. Can two kings wear one crown? So God shrunk the moon. However, God always felt guilty about shrinking the moon. (See Hullin 60b for the story.)
The Kabbalah teaches that the sun represents the masculine aspects of reality and the moon represents the feminine aspects of reality. God shrunk the feminine so that their voices are not heard. But God feels guilty. One day God will return the moon to its full glory. One day the feminine voice will be heard equally with the masculine voice. Perhaps that day has already begun. Perhaps one of the first steps is to hear the voice of Miriam, the provider of water to the people.

“How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
In 2007 I gave a Yom Kippur sermon called “The mirror and the window.” In that sermon I quoted from this week’s portion. Here is part of that sermon.
Our daily prayerbook has the words from Balaam in the Bible that a Jew says when walking into synagogue, Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael. “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” What was so goodly about our tents? According to the rabbis, 600,000 Jewish families in the wilderness set up their tents in a way that no one’s window faced the window of anybody else. No one could look into their neighbor’s tent. Everybody respected the privacy of everybody else.
We live in a society where there is no longer a realm of privacy, of modesty, of discretion. Everything that happens is fodder for the tabloids. Everybody needs to know everything about everybody else. We need to gossip. I feel deeply saddened by the life of many celebrities who live in the public sphere. I think about all the celebrities, movie stars, sports figures, politicians, who have no realm of privacy. Even rabbis are quasi-public figures; the rabbi, his or her spouse, his or her kids, are in the public eye. And people talk.
It reminds me of one of my favorite stories. A rabbi goes on a long awaited vacation overseas. He decides with nobody around, he is going to do something he could never do at home. He walks into a restaurant and orders a roasted pig. Soon the waiter brings an entire pig with an apple in his mouth. And just at this moment, the president of the synagogue walks in, sees the rabbi and walks over to say hello. The rabbi panics; what should he do? He tells the president, “What a restaurant! I order a roasted apple and look how they serve it.”
Windows are a difficult issue. We need to have windows, we need to see others sufficiently so we can help relieve their pain. We need to see the hungry and feed them, see the sick and comfort them, see those in pain and try to alleviate their suffering. We need to see what people need. But we also need to show discretion, know when to turn our eyes and not look, know when to give people their space and their privacy. It is very difficult. As a rabbi, I sometimes hear through the grapevine that someone is ill. I call them. Sometimes they say, “Rabbi I am so glad you called. You lifted my spirits.” But sometimes they say, “Rabbi, who told you I was sick. I did not want anybody to know. If I want you I will call you.” And sometimes, they will say, “Rabbi, I have been sick for months and this is the first time somebody called. Doesn’t anybody at the synagogue care?” How much do we intervene and how much do we leave people alone? How much do we care and how much do we hold back?
It is time to teach a little bit of kabbalah. Abner Weiss is a rabbi and a psychologist out in Los Angeles. He is also a brilliant mind. I heard him lecture and could not wait to buy his book, Connecting to God; Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology. It is filled with brilliant insights. Allow me to share one. Two of the sephirot of kabbalah are netzach and hod. Netzach is considered the masculine sephirah – it means eternity. Hod is considered the feminine sephirah – it means glory. But what do they really mean? According to Weiss, netzach is best translated as turning outwards, taking action towards the other, unrestrained doing. But netzach can be out of control; you can give too much. Hod is best translated as turning inwards, turning aside, giving the other their space. If we do too little for the other, we abandon them; if we do too much, we smother them. Kabbalah requires a balance between netzach and hod.
The window allows us to see others. Sometimes we need to practice netzach, to look, see what others need, and step forward to meet those needs. And sometimes we need to practice hod, to turn aside, to not look but give people their space and their privacy. In doing so we will accomplish yesod, foundation, the foundation of love, what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Windows are vital. But sometimes what we think we see through a window is not quite reality. Perhaps we can learn from our Christian neighbors. Paul in the New Testament uses the phrase, “seeing through a glass darkly.” (I Corinthians 13:12) The phrase has entered our lexicon. What we see through the window is never quite reality. Sometimes truth eludes us. Often we are far too quick to see the blemishes and far too slow to see the good in others. The Baal Shem Tov put it beautifully, “Just as people who look into a mirror see their own blemishes, so those who see faults in others know that they share some of the same fault.” So let us be slow about interpreting what we see. And that is one reason why gossip is so strongly condemned by our tradition. What we see may not be the reality. We must see our neighbor, help them if they need it, give them space, and show discretion. There is a limit to what we ought to see through the window.

“He who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes, and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be impure until evening.” (Numbers 19:21)
The great Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Braslov told a parable that is often tied to this portion. (I want to thank Rabbi Michael Cain for reminding me of this connection.) One day a prince decided that he was a rooster. He crawled under the table, took off his clothes, and began picking at food scraps with his mouth. The king and queen were besides themselves, trying to find a cure for their son.
One day a wise man came and told them, “I can cure your son.” The wise man took off his clothes and crawled under the table with the prince. “What are doing?” asked the bewildered prince. The wise man answered, “You’re a rooster, I am a rooster too.” After awhile the wise man began to put on his clothes one piece at a time. “What are you doing?” The wise man answered, “Who says a rooster cannot wear clothes?” So the prince put on clothes. Next the wise man took a fork and used it to eat. “Who says a rooster cannot eat with a fork?” So the prince started eating with a fork. Then the wise man moved out from under the table to a chair. “Who says a rooster has to stay under a table?” So the prince also moved out from under the table. Step by step the wise man took the prince from being a rooster to being a prince once again.
There is a reason why the Hasidic Movement, particularly Chabad, love this story. It defines their mission. I do not agree with everything they do, but I will give them credit for going anywhere, wherever Jews are, to lead them back to Judaism. The Chabad run the biggest Passover seder in the world in Katmandu, Nepal, a place I would not choose to spend Passover. They are influenced by many stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who was willing to descend into impure places to bring out the holy sparks.
These ideas come from this weekly portion. It contains a very strange ritual about how to purify someone who has become impure (to use the Hebrew terms, make someone tahor who was tamei). The ashes of a red cow are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and the resulting mixture is poured onto anyone who has become ritually impure. The strange mixture makes the impure person pure once again. But the person who prepares the mixture and pours it becomes impure himself. In order to purify someone else, a person needs to become a little impure.
Why a Red Cow? The Midrash teaches that the Israelite people sinned with a cow – the Golden Calf – and therefore need a cow to become pure. The Rabbis give a parable; when the maidservant’s child dirtied the king’s palace, the maidservant herself has to come clean it up. (Bemidbar Rabbah 19:8) That which made something impure must go in to make it pure. This idea becomes part of Jewish law regarding making a pot kosher if it has become non-kosher. If it became non-kosher by cooking something on the flame, then flame must be used to make it kosher. If it became non-kosher by boiling, then we boil water in it to make it kosher.
That which makes something ritually impure must be used to make it ritually pure. And if a person wants to make someone else ritually pure, they have to risk becoming a little impure themselves. Just as a wise man must crawl under a table and become a rooster to raise a prince out of his rooster-hood, so must a person be willing to meet people where they are in order to bring them to the place we want them to be.
As a rabbi, I must constantly deal with other people. If I am to have any kind of positive influence on them, I must meet them from where they are at. I admire those rabbis who serve the homeless, serve people in jail, or go out to isolated areas to connect with people. I do not wish to visit Katmandu (except perhaps as a tourist), but I do need to meet the people in my synagogue where they are at. What is true for rabbis is true for all of us. If we want to influence people in a positive way, we cannot meet them where we are. We must meet them where they are.

“Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth and she said to Balaam, What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28)
Yesterday Israel buried three teenage boys – Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16 – who were kidnapped and murdered near Hebron. The whole country, the whole Jewish community, and in fact, all who still have a shred of humanity in them, are in mourning. But there are also people who are celebrating these murders, calling the killers heroes. We pray that the memories of these three boys be for a blessing. But one has to ask, how can hatred be so deep that one can murder children to advance a political cause? What is this hatred that does not go away?
In a search for an answer, let us look at this week’s portion. We meet the heathen prophet Balaam, who is hired to curse the people Israel. In Biblical times, words were weapons and a curse had real power. (Sometimes today curses still do.) Balak the king of Moab greatly fears Israel and hires Balaam to pronounce the curses. At first God refuses to allow Balaam to go, but when Balak offers Balaam even more money, God permits it. Balaam sets out on the journey. God places an angel in the road to stop him, but only his donkey sees the angel. Balaam hits the donkey three times, and finally the donkey opens her mouth and talks back to Balaam. But even warned by a talking donkey, Balaam continues his mission. God allows him to go ahead, but warns him that he can only pronounce the words God puts in his mouth.
Three times Balaam stands on hills overlooking the encampment of Israel. Three times Balaam tries to curse the people Israel, but all three times God changes the curses into blessings. Some very wonderful blessings come out of Balaam’s mouth, words that have even become part of our liturgy. For example, when Jews enter the synagogue to pray they recite Balaam’s words ma tovu, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) Finally Balaam must return home, unpaid.
One would think that Balaam, after pronouncing these words of blessing, would go from being a hater of Israel to a friend of Israel. But Balaam had a hatred that would not go away. If curses did not work, there must be another way to destroy Israel. So Balaam decides to use the Midianite women to create havoc in Israel. If Israel could not be destroyed with curses, they could be destroyed with lust. So it was Balaam who encouraged the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men at Baal Peor. (see Numbers 31:16) Eventually, Balaam was killed when the Israelites went to war against the Midianites. It took Balaam being slain by the sword for his hatred to finally go away.
Sometimes hatred does not go away. Human history is filled with examples of people consumed by hatred. The terrorists who kidnapped and murdered innocent boys harbored a deep hatred that no peace negotiations and no compromises would overcome. They will do whatever they can to destroy Israel and Israelis. To quote one of my colleagues, they killed them because they could. Murder is just one more tactic in their ongoing hatred.
Can hatred ever be overcome? Sometimes. There are Palestinians who were horrified by the events of the last few weeks. There are Palestinians who are prepared to set the hatred aside and really pursue peace. I know because I have talked to some of them. Unfortunately for both Israel and these Palestinians, peace will never come until Israel is protected from the haters. Perhaps in a Messianic Age there will be a world where everyone loves one another. But until that age, we must continue to live in a world where too often, there is a hate that will not go away.

“That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, he who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes, and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be impure until evening”
(Numbers 19:21)
Allow me to share a memory from my rabbinical school days. I was single, living in the dormitory at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A group of us students wanted to go out to a bar popular with Columbia University. But would it be appropriate for a bunch of future rabbis to go out to this rather raunchy bar. We decided to go but to bring our Talmuds, and spend some time studying together. That way we would be raising the holy sparks in this rather dark place.
Anyone who has studied kabbalah will recognize the thinking behind our decision. According to the kabbalah of Isaac Luria, when God created the world, the vessels holding the divine sparks were shattered. These holy sparks were scattered everywhere, often hidden in rather dismal places. It is the role of humanity to uncover these holy sparks, even if it means entering impure places. The notion of entering impurity to make something else pure is a deep lesson in kabbalah. It was very influential in the Hassidic movement; there are stories of the Baal Shem Tov entering places of evil to bring out the good. But the roots of this idea go all the way back to this week’s Torah portion.
This portion contains perhaps the strangest law in the entire Torah. If a person is ritually impure and therefore unable to enter the ancient Temple, there was a bizarre ritual to purify him or her once again. A red cow (purely red, no white hairs) was sacrificed, its ashes were mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and the formula was poured on the impure person. The impure person became pure, but here is the strange insight, the person pouring the liquid would himself become impure. In other words, a man had to make himself impure in order to make someone else pure. The rabbis were unable to explain this law; they called it a hok, an arbitrary law of God to test our faith.
Perhaps the Torah is pointing towards a deep mythical idea. Sometimes people must become impure to make others pure. In literature, the most obvious example is J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Frodo must destroy the great and powerful ring which has brought evil to the land. But in destroying the ring, his soul is affected. He can never go back to the peaceful life of the shire that he once enjoyed. It is as if, by purifying the land, Frodo himself became impure.
In Jewish history, a sad example of this was the career of the famous false Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626 – 1676). Shabbatai Tzvi claimed to be the Messiah, and probably a third of the Jews of Europe were willing to follow him. They sold their property, packed up their belongings, and were ready to go to the Holy Land with their Messiah. Then Shabbatai Tzvi was arrested by the Sultan of Turkey and forced to convert to Islam. At the age of forty he converted. Most of his followers were deeply disappointed and returned to their day-to-day lives. But a number of his followers actually converted to Islam and continued to proclaim that he was the Messiah. They said that he had to immerse himself in the impure to be able to purify the world. There are still Shabbateans living in Turkey today.
It is a sad story but it reflects a mythic truth. If our desire is to make someone else pure, sometimes we need to risk entering impurity. I have heard of modern rabbis who, rather than working from within a synagogue or other institution, go out into homeless shelters, jails, even strip clubs to do outreach. I have actually had someone say to me, “You stay in your synagogue on Friday night and expect Jews to come to you. Why don’t you go to where the Jews are? Go to World of Beer, Bru’s Room, even the Casino, and conduct services there.” It is an intriguing idea.
Religion is built on powerful myths. One of those myths is that we need to enter impurity in order to make others pure. Perhaps, like all great myths, there is a touch of truth to it.

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
There is a great deal of discussion about the right to privacy. This has become particularly prominent with the news that the government has been monitoring private phone conversations in its attempt to foil terrorism. Loud voices have proclaimed that the government has no legal nor moral right to listen into private conversations without some kind of court order. Of course, on the other side are those that say that the right to security outweighs any right to privacy. The government must do what is necessary to stop those who would harm innocent Americans to further some ignoble cause.
The right to privacy versus the right to security – great arguments can be made on both sides. We could easily say that the right to security takes precedence. After all, it was the Enlightenment thinker John Locke who first proclaimed the fundamental idea of human rights. (Previously the idea of human rights was unknown, even by the Bible.) Locke spoke of the right to life, liberty, and property. The right to security seems to fall under the rubric of a right to life.
Nonetheless, there are classical Rabbinic sources that speak about the importance of privacy. One of the most famous passages about privacy is based on this week’s portion. Let me quote part of the sermon I gave on the first day of Rosh Hashana this past year, speaking about the Facebook generation:
On Facebook, twitter, and the other social networking sites, everything hangs out. Everything is put on line. Every thought is expressed. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar Movement in Judaism, once said, “Not everything that is thought should be said, not everything that is said should be written, not everything that is written should be published.” I would add, “Not everything that is published should be read.” There needs to be a realm of privacy, of covering up.
Many of you know the famous statement said when one enters a synagogue. “Mah Tovu Ohelecha Yakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.” “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” These words were said by the pagan prophet Balaam as he viewed the encampment of Israel from a nearby mountaintop. What was so goodly about the tents of Israel? According to the Midrash, the tents were laid out in a way that no opening of one tent faced the opening of another tent. No Israelite could look into the tent of another Israelite. Everybody was allowed a realm of privacy. Everybody had a chance to cover up. (See Rashi on Numbers 24:5)
When I teach these ideas to young people, I start with a question. Suppose you are walking into the synagogue, and you see the Torah sitting on the bimah, uncovered, opened up. What would you do? Invariably the young people answer, they would find a cloth or a tallit and cover the Torah up. You never leave a Torah uncovered. Holiness is achieved by covering things up. Some things are best left covered, private, unsaid.
In sexual ethics, whenever the Torah wants to speak of a forbidden sexual act, it uses similar language. Do not uncover someone’s nakedness. In other words, to live a life of holiness is to keep covered what should be kept covered. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they were “naked and unashamed.” But once they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they covered themselves up. Holiness means covering up. And that includes social networking. Not every detail of every date needs to be put out on Facebook. Not every emotion needs to be twittered. Not every thought needs to be shared for the world to see. Anyone remember the scene in Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend breaks up with her using a post-it note. How dated? How archaic? Today he would break up with her by changing his status on Facebook. Can you imagine looking on Facebook at your girlfriend or boyfriend’s status, and seeing the word “Single?!”
I often imagine what would have happened if Moses had Facebook when he received the Torah. It would have been much easier than climbing up Mount Sinai amidst the smoke and fire. He could have downloaded it and then uploaded it to all his “friends.” Don’t want the Torah – unfriend Moses. Facebook can be a great tool. But it needs a realm of privacy, some things should never be posted.
I delivered that sermon last fall on the importance of privacy. Privacy versus security is an ongoing conundrum. Both are ancient values. Somehow, our government needs to find a way to strike a balance.


“That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, he who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be impure until evening.”
(Numbers 19:21)
There is a classic Hassidic story originally told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Once there was a prince who thought he was a rooster. He took off his clothes, sat under the table, and ate table scraps from the floor. His parents, the king and queen, were desperate to help their son. But nobody knew how.
One day a Hasidic Rebbe arrived at the king’s palace and declared, “I can help your son.” The parents were ready to try anything. The rebbe took off his clothes and sat under the table. The prince asked him what he was doing, and the rebbe replied, “You are a rooster. Well, I am a rooster too.” After a while, the rebbe began to put his clothes back on. He told the prince, “Who says a rooster cannot wear clothes.” So the prince began to put on his clothes. Then the rebbe went and sat at the table. “Who says a rooster cannot sit at a table.” So the prince got up and sat at the table. Then the rebbe picked up a knife and fork. “Who says a rooster cannot eat with a knife and fork.” So the prince began eating with a knife and fork. Very quickly the prince was cured.
Of course the moral of the story is that, sometimes if you want to help someone, you have to go where they are. Sometimes you have to get down and dirty. A Hasid would say that you have to plunge into the heart of evil in order to raise up the holy sparks. It is a classical idea from Jewish mysticism that became very powerful in modern Hasidism. But this idea has its roots in our portion.
The week’s Torah portion speaks of the rather bizarre law of the red heifer. A person who becomes ritually impure (and today we are all ritually impure) must be sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer. The ashes of the cow were mixed with cedar wood (the mightiest tree), hyssop (the smallest plant), and crimson stuff (a special dye used by the priest.) The strange mixture was poured on the ritually impure person, making him or her pure once again. But here is the strange part of the law – the Priest who does the pouring became impure himself.
The entire law is so bizarre that the rabbis call it a chukah – a law with no rational explanation, a mystery. But even from a law filled with mystery we can learn a wonderful insight. Sometimes to make somebody else pure, a person must plunge into impurity. Sometimes to raise a prince from under a table, a rebbe must himself crawl under the table. We must risk getting ourselves soiled in order to help someone else become unsoiled.
There is no question that this is a dangerous idea. Shabbatai Tzvi, the seventeenth century kabbalist and charismatic leader who claimed to be the messiah, shows the danger of this idea. Shabbatai Tzvi had Jews throughout Europe ready to sell off their meager possessions and follow him to the Promised Land. More than half of Jewry was convinced that the Messiah had come. Then he was arrested by the sultan of Turkey and forced to convert to Islam. Shabbatai Tzvi converted. And yet, many Jews continued to follow them. They claimed that he converted because, in order to raise up the holy sparks, he had to plunge into the heart of evil. Not long afterwards Jacob Frank, another messiah pretender, also attracted a huge following of Jews by keeping what many considered to be an evil path.
When Hasidism exploded across Europe in the eighteenth century, many of its opponents were concerned about these ideas. The Hasidic way of life could lead to evil ways and an abandonment of Torah. Nonetheless, there is a powerful message in this image of reality. Holy sparks are everywhere. Even in the midst of what seems like evil, there is the potential to raise up these holy sparks. Good people can plunge into the heart of evil to try to raise up these sparks. Of course it is risky. Shabbatei Tzvi and especially Jacob Frank went down paths that were far from Torah. But a Hasid would argue that the risk is worthwhile.
I have always admired people willing to risk everything to travel to places far from holiness, in order to raise up the holy sparks. There are people willing to work with people in jail or drug addicts or prostitutes. There are people willing to travel to the most corrupt or impoverished countries. Only by raising these sparks can we ever hope to perfect this world.

“And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and it said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (Exodus 22:28)
Sometimes the most extreme religious fundamentalists and the most extreme secular skeptics share a belief. This week’s portion about Balaam, a gentile prophet hired to curse the Israelites, includes the tale of a talking donkey. Three times the donkey carrying Balaam on his mission stops in the road, seeing an angel blocking the way. And three times Balaam strikes the donkey. Finally the donkey opens its mouth and speaks, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” The story of the talking donkey gives both fundamentalists and skeptics food for thought.
For the fundamentalists, every word in the Torah is absolutely true. If the Torah speaks of a talking donkey, then there really was a talking donkey. Perhaps the mouth of the donkey was one of the ten miracles created from the very beginning. Nature is such that usually donkeys do not talk, but once in history a donkey really spoke. To the fundamentalists, if the Torah is valid as God’s truth, then we must interpret its words literally.
For the skeptics, the assumption is that every word in the Torah is absolutely true. If the Torah speaks of a talking donkey, it means what it says. Obviously an animal that speaks is absurd, going against nature and the entire history of empirical science. So obviously the Torah is absurd. To the secular skeptic the Torah is a series of primitive fairy tales that have no relationship to the reality of how we are to live today. Therefore the Torah is not something that moderns can take seriously.
What both these views have in common is the insistence that the Torah must be read literally. They ignore the Rabbinic statement that there are seventy faces to the Torah. They ignore the idea that the Torah has always been open to multiple interpretations, including allegorical and metaphorical interpretations. Most important, they ignore the idea that truth comes in many forms. There is empirical, scientific truth, which claims that a statement corresponds to reality. And there is mythical truth, which claims that a statement is a story told to teach us profound insights about the universe.
I believe the story of the talking donkey is true, but not in any literal or scientific sense. Even Maimonides says it is a dream or vision, not a literal fact. I believe the story is in the Torah to teach us profound insights about human nature.
What does the story come to tell us? Balaam is prepared to accept a bribe to curse out the people Israel. Later he became known as a hater of Israel. Rabbinic tradition will put the blame solely on Balaam for the attempt to seduce the people Israel using Midianite women. Balaam will eventually be killed in a war against the Midianites. Basically, Balaam is a man whose greed and whose hatred is stronger than his wisdom.
The donkey, on the other hand, sees things his master does not see. He has an insight which Balaam does not have. Usually human beings are told by the Torah to rise above the animal within them. Here is a case where the animal rose above the human being. The human being lowered himself to act like an animal. To teach him a lesson, God caused the animal to rise up and act like a human being. It is as if the human and the animal changed places.
Today we live in a world where many people cannot rise above the animal within them. They cannot control their appetites, whether for money, for sex, or for alcohol and drugs. Like Balaam, they cannot control their hatred. This week’s portion shows a topsy-turvy world where people act like animals and animals act like people. It is a warning as to how we ought to act as human beings. The story of the talking donkey, though not literally true, is filled with truths we need to hear.


“Then came the people of Israel, the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.” (Numbers 20:1-2)

Some people believe that the Torah is a fixed, unchangeable document, literally set in stone. I believe a more authentic understanding is that the Torah is organic, ever changing and ever being reinterpreted. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught that the Torah is a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation. As the community changes, the art of interpretation keeps the Torah relevant and forever growing.
The rabbis themselves speak of the variety of ways the Torah may be interpreted. For example, there is the plain meaning of the text (p’shat). Although Judaism teaches that the text never leaves its plain meaning, this is only the beginning of interpretation. For those who know the entire canon and are able to compare texts and fill in blanks, there is d’rash (literally digging into the words.) It is from these rabbinic interpretations that much of the profound wisdom of Judaism evolves.
They are philosophers and other systematic thinkers including scientists who approach the text looking for hints (remez). Such philosophers often use allegories and other methods to read their philosophy into the text. Philo was able to find Plato in the text of the Torah; Maimonides found Aristotle. Then there is sod (literally secrets), the mystical insights that grow out of the text. Mystics look not simply at the meaning of words but the very shapes of the letters to uncover deep meanings. Each of these methods was used throughout Jewish history.
The four types of interpretation (p’shat, remez, d’rash, sod) spell out the Hebrew word pardes, which means orchard. The Talmud speaks of four rabbis who entered the pardes, became involved in various kinds of interpretation including mystical speculation. Only one of the four rabbis survived unscathed.
Let me share one interpretation from this week’s portion. The portion has two verses in a row. The first speaks of the death of Miriam. The second speaks of the lack of water and the people crying out to Moses in thirst. Eventually Moses hits the rock to bring forth water, and God punishes Moses. The two verses, based on the plain meaning of the text (p’shat), have nothing to do with each other. They are simply a story.
Now comes the d’rash. Why are the verses next to each other? When Miriam was alive the people had water. There must have been a well that Miriam carried with her through the desert. Miriam the prophetess became Miriam the supplier of water. Suddenly the picture of Miriam changed. But now we get a little philosophy (remez). Miriam’s well was actually made on the eve of creation. (Avot 5:9) It was not a miracle but a unique, last minute phenomenon built into nature. Miracles are not breaks in nature but part of nature. Nature itself becomes the miracle.
And perhaps we need a little mystical interpretation (sod). The water was not actual physical water but spiritual learning or Torah. The rabbis often compare Torah to water. Miriam was responsible for teaching Torah, and when she died the spiritual well dried up. One can see how much richer the story becomes when interpreted.
Today many Jews have added a new layer of interpretation to this story. Why are only the men recognized in Judaism? It was Miriam who supplied the water, whether for physical sustenance or spiritual sustenance. So many Jews, under the influence of modern feminism, add a cup of water in Miriam’s honor to the Passover seder table. Now there are two cups, a full cup of wine for Elijah and a full cup of water for Miriam. You can even buy a beautiful, artistically designed Miriam’s Cup in many Judaica gift shops (including the one run by our sisterhood.)
The Torah is organic, ever growing and changing through interpretation. Miriam’s well is one example. That is why the Torah through ongoing interpretation will always be central to Jews.



“Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, what have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28)

There is an ongoing argument I have been having with various people over many years. Are human beings merely animals, perhaps with a few more abilities? Or are human beings qualitatively different from animals? Those who argue that we humans are mere animals point to human like qualities in various animals. Elephants recognize their biological grandchildren. Dolphins communicate on a sophisticated level. Dogs show self-sacrifice in protecting their owners.
The main argument given by the “humans are mere animals” camp is the evolutionary argument. According to Darwin’s theory, humans and animals evolved from common ancestors. In 1860 Bishop Samuel Wilberforce made the snide remark to Thomas Henry Huxley (known as Darwin’s bulldog), “are you descended from an ape on your mother’s side or your father’s side?” Today we do through DNA testing that we share most our genetic material with animals, and for that matter, plants.
From a religious point of view, humans are different despite our DNA. We are able to make moral choices and are responsible for our behavior. We have the ability to speak, and thus pass on to a new generation not only physical traits but culture and values. The Bible uses the terminology that only humans are created “in the image of God.” Humans have a special soul called the neshama, literally “the breath of God.” Humans are responsible for their behavior in a way that animals are not.
These themes, particularly that of speech, comes to a head in this week’s portion. We have the wonderful story of the talking donkey. Balak the king of the Moabites tries to hire Balaam, a gentile prophet, to curse the Israelites. Although offered a large sum of money, God forbids Balaam from carrying out the plan. However, when Balaam is offered still more money, God reluctantly allows him to go ahead.
As Balaam rides his donkey to carry out the curses, his donkey sees an angel blocking his way. Three times the donkey stops and three times Balaam strikes the donkey. At last the donkey talks back to Balaam. “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” The donkey has a greater vision and more insight than the man.
What is this simple legend doing in the Torah? I believe the answer is to teach us about humans and animals. It is a story of confusion between the role of a human and the role of an animal. The human, Balaam, acts like an animal; following his appetite for money to perform an act that God has forbidden. Animals live by their appetites. In contrast, the animal acts like a human, seeing the angel and speaking out to Balaam. If the human is going to act like an animal, than the animal is going to act like a human.
In the end, Balaam does try to curse the Israelites. Three times God changes the words that come out of his mouth from curses into blessings. In fact, one of Balaam’s phrases, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel” has become part of our liturgy. Perhaps the lesson is that words have power. That power must be used in an appropriate and proper way.
The story of Balaam is the story of a human who acted like an animal and an animal who acted like a human. It is a story of the power of words. And it reemphasizes the idea that humans have the ability to speak, and that gift makes them unique among all the life forms on the earth. Speech is a gift that brings with it special responsibilities. Perhaps this portion is again a reminder of how we humans need to rise above the animal within us, and live as creatures uniquely created in the image of God.



“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” (Numbers 25:1)

I had a fascinating conversation with a couple of young people (early twenties) from our congregation this week. The asked me why I called my 1992 book Does God Belong in the Bedroom? These are young people who grew up in a milieu of uninhibited recreational sex. What does God have to do with sexuality?
I began somewhat tongue in cheek with the famous Talmudic story of Rav Kahane. He hid under the bed of his rabbi as the rabbi made love with his wife. When his rabbi caught Kahane, he replied, “This too is Torah; I came to learn.” (It is really in the Talmud; see Berachot 62a). I tried to explain that God cares about our sexual behavior, as God cares about everything we do. In the inevitable way of young people, they asked me “Why?”
I gave the same answer I have given in lectures across the country. Our job is to rise above the animal within us. Male animals try to spread their seed to as many female animals as possible. It is called genetic survival. Our dog would hump any other dog that would give him a chance. That is the way of the world. But we humans are supposed to be different. We humans are supposed to control our appetites.
Again the question “Why?” I answered with a question of my own to these twenty-somethings. Suppose you were to find a significant other on J-Date. Suppose you really liked this person; you saw great potential for a long-term relationship, even marriage. But suppose this person shared with you a history of promiscuity. They had slept over the past year with countless other sexual partners. Would you be comfortable pursuing a relationship with that person? Could you trust them to be faithful within a marriage? My young people admitted that they would have difficulty committing to a person with such a history of promiscuity.
Again I mentioned our dog’s inclination to simply follow his appetite. One of the young people said, “The dog needs to be trained to control his appetite.” His words gave me an opening. “The whole purpose of Judaism is to train people to control their appetites. That is what the quest for holiness is all about.”
This week’s double portion is filled with people who could not control their appetite in various areas. Moses, the greatest teacher of them all, could not control his appetite for anger. He hit the rock to force water to come out, and castigated the people: “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” (Numbers 20:10) God punished him, preventing him from going into the land. Balaam, the great gentile prophet, could not control his appetite for wealth. He was bribed into cursing the Israelites, even after God told him it was forbidden.
The most egregious example occurs at the very end of the portion. The Israelite men have a sexual encounter with the Moabite women that can only be called an orgy. The discipline that had marked the forty years of wandering fell apart at the borders of the Holy Land. The men lost control of their sexual drive bringing tragedy unto the people. The inability to control one’s sexual drive is the perhaps the oldest and the newest of human weaknesses, affecting people from King David in Biblical times to the governor of South Carolina this week.
I wrote my book after teaching a class on sexual ethics. My goal was to help human beings make sex holy. It was strengthen family life and to encourage people to have children within a long term committed relationship, not after casual encounters. I see what is happening in our culture today, and I believe even more strongly that God belongs in the bedroom.


“This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded, Instruct the Israelite people to bring a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Numbers 19:2)
This week I drove to Bradenton on the west coast of Florida to help my son move out of his apartment. (He is relocating to Boston.) Being bored with the interstate, I decided to drive on back country roads. I must have driven through cow country. I saw hundreds of cows and was impressed with the variety of colors I saw. There were light brown and dark brown and every shade in between; there were white and black and various combinations.
I did not see a purple cow. The ditty my mother taught me when I was young still holds:
I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.
I also did not see a red cow. Had I seen a red cow, I might have stopped and tried to buy it. For based on this week’s Torah reading, a red cow would be quite valuable.
The ashes of a red cow are a requirement for ritual purification. Someone who becomes ritually impure could become purified through a detailed ritual using the ashes of a red cow. Only following this purification could they reenter the area of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. If we ever want to rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem, we first need to find a red cow. So I kept my eyes open on the back country roads north of Lake Okeechobee.
Why would such a strange law be in the Torah? The Midrash tells the story of an idolater who came to Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai questioning this law. “These rites you perform look like a kind of witchcraft. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a dead body you sprinkle upon him two or three drops and you say to him, you are clean.” R. Johanan ben Zakkai replied to the idolater, “What do you do when someone is possessed by a demon of madness.” “We bring roots and make them smoke under him, then we sprinkle water upon the demon so it flees.” R. Johanan explained that the Israelites do the same. The idolater was satisfied and left. Then his students asked, “Master, you put the idolater off with a mere makeshift answer. How do you explain it to us?” R. Johanan replied in a famous reply, “It is neither the dead that defiles nor the water that purifies. I have issued a decree and you may not transgress my decree.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8)
There are three different kinds of laws in the Torah. There are mishpatim, literally judgments, laws we can know rationally. We do not need a Torah to tell us that murder, adultery, and stealing are wrong. Then there are edut, literally testimonies, laws where we bear witness to some religious truth. We keep the Sabbath to bear witness to God’s creation of the world, observe Passover to bear witness to the exodus from Egypt, and build a sukkah to bear witness to God’s sustaining power in the wilderness.
Finally there are hukkot, often translated statues or degrees but from a Hebrew root meaning engraved. The law of the red cow is one of these statutes. These are laws that are written and which we follow not for any logical reason but out of a sense of commitment. To some extent, perhaps these are some of the most important laws. To quote the new Etz Hayim commentary, “It is more praiseworthy to do something solely because God commands it than because our own logic or sense of morality leads to the same conclusion.” (Sifra K’dodshim) The Tosafot compare this commandment to a lover’s kiss which cannot be explained but can only be experienced. (Avodah Zara 35a)”
Perhaps the lesson for us moderns is that in every relationship there are things we do, even if they are not logical or easy to explain. Love is about commitments that we make because the one we love desires those commitments. We may not understand them; we cannot explain them. They may not be logical. But as Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”


“Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth and she said to Balaam, what have I done to you that you have beaten me those three times.” (Numbers 22:28)

Let me begin with a true story that happened last Sunday afternoon. I was performing a wedding down in Coral Gables, a neighborhood south of downtown Miami. The family had made arrangements for a driver to bring the grandmother of the groom, a frail older woman. And she was running late. Suddenly they received a desperate call; the driver was totally lost. I got on the phone to try to steer her in the right direction.
The driver had somehow wandered onto Miami Beach. (For those who do not live in this area, it is more than a half hour in the wrong direction.) I tried to guide the driver back to the wedding but she somehow could not find the way. The next call I received was from Miami airport, a half hour in still another wrong direction. The wedding was starting soon. I told the driver, get off the highway and find somebody who can point you the right way.
What happened next reaffirmed my faith in humanity. The driver went up to total strangers and desperately asked for help. The strangers said, “Follow us.” Then these strangers led them on a half hour drive in the right direction, making it to the synagogue just in time. They drove away before anyone could get their name. But with the price of gas and everything else, some people took the time to lead an elderly lady to her grandson’s wedding.
I did not find out the details of the story to later, or I might have said something under the huppah (wedding canopy). In general, when I speak to a bride and groom I try to share some thoughts on the true meaning of love. Love means the ability to see another in need and set aside one’s own needs to help the other. I tell every bride and groom to look at each other and commit to putting their own needs, wants, and demands aside to help the other. We cannot love another until we diminish ourselves. Here was the perfect example – total strangers prepared to set aside their own needs to help another person in trouble.
I believe this ability to love is what sets us humans above the animal world. When I teach these ideas to children, I ask them, “How many of you have a dog?” Most raise their hands. “How many of you love your dog?” Again most raise their hands. Then I ask, “Does your dog love you?” More slowly they raise their hands. Then I describe my own dog. “I put him out early every morning before my wife wakes up. Often he starts barking at my neighbor’s cat. He wakes my wife up. Does that mean my dog does not love my wife?” Of course the answer is that dogs love as animals love. Humans love on a higher level. Humans can really see the needs of the other and set aside their own desires to love the other.
This week’s portion speaks of a talking donkey. Balaam was on a mission to curse the Israelites. He accepted the mission, although against God’s will, after receiving a substantial bribe. Balaam was forced to stop when his donkey saw an angel blocking the roadway. When Balaam hit him three times, the donkey finally spoke back. “What have I done to you that you have beaten me those three times?”
Many question whether this story is true or some kind of dream. I see it as a parable, somewhat like one of Aesop’s fables. The animal had better insight than the man. An animal was able to see something to which a human being was blind. The animal had reached a higher level of wisdom and insight than the human. The story is not about how wonderful the donkey was but how weak the man was. The human not only could not rise above the animal; he was far lower. He could not see the other.
It is easy to live life on the animal level. We see ourselves and our own needs and fail to see the other. If someone truly needs help, we try to avoid them. The question is, how can we build a world where it is the norm for people to put aside their needs for those of the other? How can we build a world where it is no surprise that strangers would make sure an elderly woman arrived at her grandson’s wedding? That is a world worth striving for.



“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, This is the ordinance of the Torah which the Lord has commanded, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” (Numbers 19:1-2)

There is a sad but powerful scene in the Biblical story of King David. God punishes David for his adultery with Batsheva and the murder of Batsheva’s husband Uriah. The son they had conceived will die. The son becomes ill, and David fasts and prays for him. But once the son dies, David changes his clothes, anoints his head with oil, and eats once again. The servants ask him why he was eating now that the child was dead. His answer contains both tragedy and wisdom. “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” (II Samuel 12:22-23)
With this story comes a powerful Biblical lesson – the total separation of life and death. Life is for the living. We mourn the dead, but we do not create a cult of death. The ancient Egyptians priests built pyramids as tombs to their dead Pharaohs. Jewish priests, the kohanim, on the contrary, are forbidden from setting foot in a cemetery or attending a funeral (with the exception of certain immediate relatives.) The Bible is about how to live in this world, not about how to prepare for the next. That is why David eats following the loss of his child. And that is why, according to Jewish funeral practices, the first act a mourner does upon returning home from a burial, following washing hands and lighting a candle, is to eat a meal. Eating reaffirms life in the face of death.
This week’s portion speaks of a very strange ritual of purification. A person who has been in the presence of death cannot reenter the holy Temple without this rite of purification. A red cow without blemish was sacrificed and its ashes mixed with certain plants. The mixture was then poured upon the person who had become impure. The reason behind this strange ritual is lost in antiquity. But the idea is clear. After being touched by death, a person must purify himself or herself in preparation to reenter the living. For similar reasons, Jewish mourners walk around the block to leave the state of mourning and reenter the world. We are not to organize a cult of death but find ways to reestablish life for the living. Religion is to be lived in this world.
When non-Jews approach me about Judaism, one of the first questions they ask me is, “What does Judaism believe happens to us when we die?” My answer is that Judaism is deliberately vague about this question. The soul does return to God, but what that means is not spelled out. The clear vision of heaven and hell of Christian tradition is lacking in Judaism. No Jew could have written Dante’s Inferno. For the key issue of the Rabbis was how to live in this world.
The separation of life and death is built into the very nature of the rituals of Judaism. Let me share a few examples. Traditional Jews will not mix milk and meat. The Torah teaches this law without giving a reason. Perhaps we can say that meat symbolizes death – the flesh of the animal. Milk symbolizes life – the source of sustenance which mother passes on to the child. So we separate death from life. (Sorry to those who love cheeseburgers.)
Traditional Jews practice the laws of family purity, faithfully observed in the Orthodox community and coming back into the non-Orthodox community. A husband and wife separate and avoid marital relations following the menses. Then the wife immerses in a mikvah or ritual bath, and the couple comes back together. The menses represents death, a potential life not born. The mikvah represents life, water is the source of life.
We have already spoken of the laws forbidden priests from entering a cemetery. All of these laws point in the same direction, the total separation of life and death. And as the Torah teaches, the laws were given so we may “live by them.”



“And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and it said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
(Numbers 22:28)

At night before I go to bed I usually read non-fiction, especially since I began my PhD studies. If I want to enjoy a good novel, I find it useful to check books on CD out of the library and listen as I drive from place to place. This is how I recently enjoyed Yann Martel’s award winning story Life of Pi. Martel’s sixteen year old Indian boy who wanted to be a Hindu, Christian, and Moslem at the same time became my companion in my car.
Martel’s novel tells the story of a teenage boy who is the only human survivor of a shipwreck. He ends up on a life boat for over two hundred days with a full grown, male Bengal tiger (and a few other animals but they don’t last long.) The story tells how he learns to communicate with the tiger and survive. The book is filled with fascinating insights into how animals think and communicate, what we humans share and how we differ from the animal kingdom.
As I listened to the story I thought about this week’s portion and the story of the donkey who spoke back to Balaam. Most commentators worry whether the story is true of merely a dream or illusion. In my mind that is not the important question. The important issue is how an animal is able to communicate more wisdom and insight than a human being. Balaam may be a prophet, but at this moment he is unable to see what his own donkey sees. He must learn wisdom from a mere animal.
In another book Dr. Doolittle was able to able to talk to the animals. In real life we humans have been given a gift which has helped us rise above any other species in the animal kingdom in our understanding. Speech gives us a wisdom which those who cannot speak lack. Scientists have debated whether the development of the ability to speak caused humans to evolve to a higher level of understanding, or whether a higher level of understanding caused speech to develop. It is a classic chicken and egg scenario. Somehow, the ability of speech gave us humans a wisdom which a Bengal tiger or a mere donkey lacks. Speech is the gift that raises us up.
Those who read these weekly messages know that one of my favorite themes is how humans need to rise above the animal kingdom. We humans have an intrinsic holiness that other creatures lack. An important part of that holiness is the ability to see the world through the eyes of others, to understand and empathize with them. Part of Pi’s difficulty in the book was getting the tiger to understand that the survival of both of them was in Pi’s hands. If the tiger attacked him, the tiger would lose his source of food and water. But tigers do not naturally empathize with others; only humans do.
In this portion Balaam lost this ability to empathize with others. When Balaam agreed to curse the Israelites, all he saw were dollar signs (or probably more accurately, shekel signs.) He was going to use the gift that makes us human, the power of speech, to undermine his fellow humans. Last time humans misused their powers to behave unethically, at the Tower of Babel, God confounded their speech. By losing their ability to communicate, they lost a precious part of their humanity.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein speaks about Language Games, the shared thinking and assumptions that allow humans to communicate with one another. Without such shared language we humans would speak right past each other. Wittgenstein calls it a game because unless there is a shared meaning, communication is lost. It would be as if two people were sitting at a chess board, one playing chess and the other just moving pieces randomly around. Things would quickly fall apart.
We humans have the ability to communicate and understand each other. Unless we use that sacred ability, we become like Balaam, where even a donkey has better understanding.


“Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
(Numbers 22:6)

This week I want to continue with a theme I began last week. How do we argue? Last week I wrote that there are arguments in the name of heaven such as those between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. But unfortunately, there are also arguments not in the name of heaven such as that between Korach and Moses. This week in the story of Balaam and his attempt to curse the Israelites, we learn that words have power. How we use our words in an argument can build or they can destroy.
Last week I also wrote about Rabbi Johanan’s deep regret when his brother-in-law and partner in argument Reish Lakish died. “Resh Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law.” (Baba Metzia 84a) This is perhaps the best example of the importance the Rabbis of the Talmud put in a good argument. However, last week I did not tell the entire story.
The great rabbi Reish Lakish actually began life as a gladiator who tried to rob Rabbi Johanan. Rabbi Johanan, known for his piety and beauty, told him, “Your strength should be used for Torah.” Reish Lakish responded, “Your beauty should be used for women.” Rabbi Johanan responded, “If you think I am beautiful, wait until you meet my sister, who is more beautiful than me. Come learn with me, dedicate yourself to a life of study, and I will introduce you to her.” That is how Reish Lakish became Rabbi Johanan’s brother-in-law and partner in argument.
Everything was fine for years, until one day they began arguing an obscure point of Jewish law, the ritual purity of certain weapons. Rabbi Johanan shouted out in exasperation, “A thief knows his trade.” An argument ensued and the two men stopped talking for the rest of their lives. What began as an argument over a point of Jewish law turned into a bitter personal argument leading to estrangement. Both men were too proud to open the door and ask for forgiveness, until it Reish Lakish died and it was too late.
It is inevitable that human beings argue. Spouses argue, parents and children argue, siblings argue, co-workers argue, and of course, rabbis argue with congregants. The great Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar (ethics) Movement in Judaism, once taught, “Any rabbi whose congregation always agrees with him is not really a rabbi, but any rabbi whose congregation never agrees with him is not really a mensch.” I have often taken great comfort in that saying.
How ought we to argue? Allow me to share three pieces of wisdom. The first is that anyone in the heat of an argument needs to step back and do some soul searching. “Am I really arguing because I disagree over some point with this other person? Or is this argument really about power?” It was the French social historian Michel Foucault who taught that all discourse is really about power – who has power and who wants power. For example, if you are arguing with your spouse about a teenage child’s curfew, is it a true disagreement? Or are you really trying to assert your power as the final authority when it comes to parenting? If your arguments are really about power, it is time to step back.
The second point is, has the argument becomes personal? R. Johanan’s words “A thief knows his trade” changed the discourse from an argument about Jewish law to a personal attack. Again, using the example of a teen’s curfew, do you use words like “You are always too loose as a parent,” or “You are always too strict as a parent.” When arguments become personal attacks, again it is time to step back.
The third point depends on the type of argument. If the argument is how to make peace in the Middle East, there is no resolution. But if the argument is over a teen’s curfew, there has to be a resolution. Is there room for compromise? Can both sides give in a little and find some middle ground? This is the reason that I am a believer in mediation. Mediation is often the path to compromise.
How can we make our arguments for the sake of heaven? Hopefully these three rules can serve as guides.



“The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there are was buried there.”
(Numbers 20:1)

We are gathered here to say goodbye to Miriam the prophetess. Yes she was the big sister of two great leaders, Aaron and Moses. But her greatness was not simply her family connection. Miriam was a leader in her own right.
Who can forget that moment after the crossing of the Reed Sea. Moses was leading all the men in song. Miriam believe that celebrations were not only for the men. She took her tambourine, brought all the women to one side, and led the women in song and dance. She was the first female cantor. And the joy in her voice still reverberates some forty years later.
Most of us know that Miriam was there for Moses when his mother first put him in a basket and sent him floating down the Nile River. She followed the baby and watched as Pharaoh’s daughter drew him from the river, and she was the one who brought Moses’ real mother to be the wet nurse. She had a key role in assuring that Moses was raised aware of his people and their suffering.
What few people know is that, if it were not for the big sister Miriam, Moses would never have been born. When Pharaoh decreed that all male babies should thrown into the river, Moses’ parents separated. They would not risk having a male baby. Following their lead, all the Israelites separated. No new babies would be born among the Israelites. None, until a precocious little girl named Miriam challenged her parents.
Miriam told her father, Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you are making sure no males or females are born. Pharaoh’s decree can be overturned at any time, but your decree is forever. And with her words, Miriam convinced her parents to come back together. As a result of her wisdom, baby Moses, the rescuer of our people, was born. (Sota 12a)
Miriam was a wonderful older sister to two brothers, Aaron and Moses. Of course, there was one difficult moment that we must mention. Miriam spoke out against her brother Moses regarding the dark skinned woman he had married. As a result of her words, she broke out into leprosy. Who could forget the poignant moment when Moses cried out regarding his sister, “O God, pray heal her.” Why would Miriam have spoken against her brother regarding his wife?
Perhaps here too, there is an answer. Moses was a wonderful lawgiver, but he was a less successful as a husband. Perhaps Miriam spoke out because she believed her brother was neglecting his wife. Perhaps Miriam=s words were based on the true empathy of one woman for another. Her words were an attempt to get her brother to spend more time with his wife. Even when she erred, she did so out of love and concern for a fellow woman.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of Miriam was how she supplied water for the Israelites during their forty years of wandering through the wilderness. No one knows how she managed this miraculous feat. Some say she had a secret well of water that magically traveled with her throughout the wanderings. We only know that when she was alive, there was always enough water to drink. Now that she is gone, the Israelites are suddenly crying out for water.
The water is a powerful symbol of Miriam as a woman and a leader. Her greatest gift was to sustain the people. One brother gave the law, one brother was the High Priest, but Miriam provided physical sustenance. Without her there would be no law and no cult, for we would have died of thirst in the desert. And so she was a role model for women throughout the generations, the ones that without fanfare but with love, provided sustenance for their families.
How can we best remember Miriam? Passover, celebrating our exodus from Egypt, is the most popular Jewish festival. We already fill a cup of wine in honor of Elijah at our Passover table. Perhaps we ought to fill a second cup of water for Miriam, the big sister, prophetess, and sustainer of Israel. Let us celebrate her life with a full cup of water, the symbol of life. For Miriam, from her childhood to her last year, was the giver of life.



“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel.”
(Numbers 24:5)

As I write these words, the big news in the world of entertainment is that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have turned eighteen. My family used to watch the popular television show Full House, which they appeared on as babies. These two lovely young women have literally grown up before our eyes. And now that they have come of age, they are able to control the billions of dollars their entertainment, clothing, and accessory businesses are worth.
Even at an exciting moment in the twins’ lives, there is a somber note. Mary-Kate has entered a treatment facility to cope with an eating disorder. The reality of trying to maintain a perfect body weight while growing up in the public eye has finally caught up with this young girl. Few things are more difficult than living in the public eye, without any sense of privacy. We may admire the celebrity life style. But few of us could tolerate the constant paparazzi intrusions, the tabloid comments, and the discussions of weight, health, relationships, and myriads of personal matters. As human beings (and celebrities are human beings), we need and deserve a realm of privacy.
This is true on much more limited scale to those of us in the clergy. I am seeing a startling and scary rise in divorces of rabbis and their spouses. Could it be that the constant pressure of living in the public eye places undue pressure on a marriage? Can anyone live with constant comments about his or her life style? Rabbis’ kids are also subject to ongoing scrutiny about how they live their lives. It is small wonder that the rebellion level among PKs (preacher’s kids) is far higher than the norm.
Human beings need a realm of privacy, a place they can go where nobody sees them, where nobody judges them or comments on them, where they are safe from ongoing public scrutiny. This is one of the insights of the Talmudic Rabbis on this week’s Torah portion.
Balaam was hired to curse the Israelites, but whenever he opened his mouth blessings came out. Perhaps the most famous blessing is the one Jews say whenever they enter a house of worship, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel.” The tents and dwelling places refer to synagogues, but also to private homes. What is so goodly about the private homes?
According to the Rabbis, when Israelites built their homes, they made sure that no door or window of one home directly faced the door or window of another home. People did not have to fear that people in the next home were staring through the door or window. People, at least in their homes, should be able to carve out a realm of privacy. There should be some place to go where the world is not watching.
One of the central themes of so many of these spiritual messages is that we humans need to rise above the animal in us. What makes us different from animals? One thing is that animals have no need and no desire for privacy. They eat in public, meet their bodily needs in public, even copulate in public. In the Garden of Eden we humans were the same way, animal-like, or to quote the text, “naked and not ashamed.” When we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the first thing we did was cover ourselves up. Privacy became important.
We live in an age that shuns privacy. Television has allowed people to reveal to the entire world their innermost secrets, their family conflicts, their pains and pleasures. Reality shows have people searching for a soul mate before an audience of millions, or physically altering their body through plastic surgery before the public. All the physical and emotional conflicts are played out before an audience. We have lost that realm of privacy.
Perhaps it is time to return to that Talmudic mandate, when no one had a door or window facing the door or window of his or her fellow. Nobody can look into someone else’s house. Each of us has a right to keep key areas of our lives private. And each of us had a responsibility to build such a wall of privacy for ourselves and those we love.



“He who sprinkled the water of purification shall wash his clothes; and whoever touches the water of purification shall be unclean until evening.” (Numbers 19:21)

I recently had a discussion with one of our teens. She was a very close friend with a girl whose lifestyle was not healthy, a girl indulging in drinking, drugs, and casual sex. I was frightened that this friend would be a bad influence on this teen. But the friendship was too strong; I knew they would keep seeing each other.
Then I shared an insight that I hope she grasped. “If you maintain this friendship with her, one of two things is going to happen. Either she is going to pull you down to where she is. Or else you will pull her up to where you are. I hope you never forget the values you were raised with. I pray that you will pull her up.”
The conversation must have been successful. She later shared a talk she had with her friend. “I told her that the life she was living were not the values I had been raised with. I told her that I know she can do better.” Slowly I see this teen’s friend changing.
Sometimes we can go down into the muck and succeed in pulling someone else up. But it is dangerous business. It is so easy to be pulled down ourselves. Which way we go depends a lot on the values we start with.
This idea is beautifully illustrated by a classic Hasidic story. A prince thought he was a rooster; he sat under the table and clucked all day. His father, the king, searched desperately for a cure with no results. One day a wise man came to the king and said, “I can cure your son.” “I am desperate,” said the father, “try whatever you can.” The wise man crawled under the table and started to cluck like a rooster. When the prince said, “I’m a rooster,” the wise man said “I’m a rooster too.” After a while the wise man said to the prince, “is there any reason a rooster can’t sit at the table?” So the prince sat at the table. Then the wise man said, “is there any reason a rooster cannot eat with a knife and fork.” So, step by step, the wise man led the prince back to the princely life.
The wise man went under the table to pull the prince up. If the wise man was weaker, the prince could have pulled him down. He might have begun acting like a rooster too. If we are going to befriend people who live their lives by questionable values, we better begin with strong values of our own. We better begin with a vision of how a person ought to live.
I learned this lesson from the beginning of this week=s Torah reading. The Torah contains the strange law of the red heifer. When a person becomes ritually impure, a special mixture was made containing the ashes of a red heifer. The ashes were poured on the impure person, making them pure. But the irony is that the person who poured the mixture on them became impure. A person could purify their fellow, but only by becoming impure themselves. They had to descend into the impure realm to lift another person up to purity.
The kabbalists took off on this idea and taught that sometimes you must descend into evil to lift people out of evil. Obviously, this is dangerous business. Evil is tempting. Drugs, drinking, and casual sex are tempting to teens who want to be popular. One needs a very strong sense of values if one wants to befriend someone in that world. Only then can one lift their fellow out without being dragged down themselves.



“The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto you that you have hit me these three times.” (Numbers 22:28)

Alexander Graham Bell, when he was not working on the telephone, tried to teach a dog to speak. He worked with the dog’s mouth and throat muscles to produce the right sound, but in the end he was only able to get some growling noises. The dog was probably trying to say, “Leave me alone so I can sleep.” Luckily, Bell went back to inventing the telephone.
Human beings talk. Dogs do not, and neither do donkeys. This week’s portion contains the fairy tale of a talking donkey. The Rabbis of the Talmud were sufficiently troubled by this story to say that this particular donkey was a unique creation, made special by God at the eve of the very first Shabbat for this story. (See Avot 5:6). In other words, talking donkeys are not the way of the world, and this was a one time event to teach a special lesson.
The story has always been one of my favorites from the Bible. Balak, frightened by the surging Israelites, hired the gentile prophet Balaam to curse Israel. God told Balaam not to go. Baalam persisted and God gave reluctant approval but told Balaam he could only speak the words God gave him to speak. Balaam saddled up his she donkey and began the journey. Three times an angel with a fiery sword appeared before the donkey, but only the donkey, not Balaam, saw it. When the donkey bucked and refused to go forward, Balaam hit him. Finally the donkey spoke, “What have I done to you that you hit me these three times.” (Numbers 22:28) Balaam, rather than show surprise by this strange development, attacked back, “Because you have mocked me. If I had a sword in my hand, I would have killed you.” (Numbers 22:29) Then the angel finally appeared to Balaam.
At first glance the whole story seems like a rather silly fairy tale. But like every Biblical story, if we read beyond the fable it contains profound truths. This is a story about the difference between animals and human beings. We humans evolved from animals. At some point we evolved the ability to produce speech. The famed linguist Noah Chomsky has taught that there is actually an organ able to process syntax, and that there is a universal grammar which is at the base of all languages. When this organ evolved, life entered a new level of comprehension of the universe. With the use of language, humans were able to interpret their world and communicate its meaning with one another. With the evolution of language, humans could speak about right and wrong. It is the moment that we became more Godlike, or to use the words of Genesis, the use of language was the first indication that we were “created in the image of God.”
The story of Balaam’s ass is the story of an animal who has more insight into right and wrong than her human master. The animal saw that this path was the wrong path to follow, and was blocked by God’s angel. The human being was blind to God’s will. In the story, the animal became the human and the human became the animal. The animal knew right from wrong, the human was simply following his appetite. (In this case greed; Balaam would be awarded greatly for cursing the Israelites.) It was only appropriate that in the story, the animal with human insight began speaking.
In real life animals do not speak. We humans can speak, can use abstract reason, can determine right from wrong, can make proper decisions. Unfortunately, too often we fail to use our God given power of speech for any higher purpose. We gossip, or curse, or lie, or rationalize bad behavior, or lash out with words. We are taking speech, the very power that raises us above the animal kingdom, and act like mere animals. When we misuse speech, we separate ourselves from God our creator.
In this story, the donkey understands right and wrong and speaks about it. The human being is blind to right and wrong. It took an animal to teach a human being how to act properly. It is as if the donkey is telling the human, “You are created in the image of God, not me. Act the part.”



“And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, hear now, you rebels, are we to bring you forth water from the rock?”
(Numbers 20:10)

Why was Moses forbidden from entering the promised land? The usual answer is that he hit the rock not once but twice when God merely commanded him to speak to the rock. Some blame him for taking credit for the miracle of the water at the rock, when the credit should have gone to God.
I find neither of these answers satisfying. Moses’ sin goes much deeper into the heart of what it means to be a human being. Moses was angry at people who had a legitimate complaint. They were thirsty. Moses allowed his temper to overwhelm him, not only striking at the rock but screaming at the people, “hear now, you rebels.” Moses was a man who could not control his anger. And when a leader cannot exhibit self-control on something so basic, it is time to appoint a new leader.
There is an opinion prevalent today that anger is a good thing. A person needs to display his or her anger. Too much self control will lead to anger building up like steam in a tea kettle. If we do not let it burst forth, it will eventually explode. In our modern therapeutic community, expressing one’s anger is positive, even necessary, for psychological health.
In truth, uncontrolled anger is an extremely destructive force. It destroys marriages, it mars children, it creates terror among employees, at its most tragic, it leads to the ongoing high school and work related shootings. Even when there is no physical violence, I have seen men destroy the souls of their wives and children because their anger was out of control. When Moses was unable to control his anger, God realized that it was time to pick a new leader. Those in positions of leadership have a particular responsibility to control their anger.
Anger is perhaps one of the clearest examples of a powerful Jewish teaching. Every human being is born with two inclinations, the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). For the next three weeks I want to look at the evil inclination. The yetzer hara is simply our appetites out of control. We need our appetites, and anger has a role to play. Without anger we would never fight injustice, we would stand passively by as wrongs are committed. The problem is not anger, but uncontrolled anger.
One of the great rabbis Ben Zoma, taught, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their appetites.” (Avot 4:1) A worthy life is one of self-control and self-discipline. The object is not to remove anger altogether, but to limit its time and place. Rashi, in his commentary on the Sh’ma, taught that we should serve God with both our good and our evil inclinations. How do we serve God with our evil inclination, with our fundamental human appetites? The key is self-control.
I find this teaching particularly useful as a parent.
Sometimes I become so angry at my children that I want to explode. Sometimes, rather than controlling my temper I have let my temper control me. When I am wise, I realize that uncontrolled anger is not teaching my children proper behavior. Only when I regain self-control can I properly discipline my children.
Anger has a place, as do all of our appetites. Our job is to control them. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) has a place. Out of control it can destroy; under control it can be used to serve God.



AThey came to Balaam and said to him, Thus says Balak son of Zippor, please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me, only come and curse this people for me.@ (Numbers 22:16-17)

I recently had a wonderful conversation with one of our college students home for the summer. Through the year he had spoken about how evil and corrupt the United States economic system (words I might have spoken when I was in college.) He wanted to see capitalism replaced with something kinder and gentler.
Now, he confessed to me, AI realize the system is not what is evil and corrupt. People are evil and corrupt.@ AAt last,@ I shouted, AYou finally get it. Too often we work at changing the system. In truth, we need to change people.@
People are not necessarily evil and corrupt. As I mentioned last week, people have an evil inclination (Ayetzer hara@), but they also have a good inclination (Ayetzer hatov@). The evil inclination is our appetites out of control. And one area where the appetite is particularly hard to control is greed, our desire for wealth.
In this week=s portion, Balak hired the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. He offered Balaam a large sum of money, but Balaam turned down the offer. AGod said to Balaam, do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.@ (Numbers 22:12) That should have ended the matter, but Balak sent a more distinguished delegation with even more money. Balaam approached God again, and this time God does not stop him.
If cursing the Israelites was wrong for a lesser amount of money, it was still wrong for a greater amount of money. Balaam allowed greed to overrule his conscience. Whenever I read this story, I remember the apocryphal story attributed to George Bernard Shaw. He approached a woman he met at a party and said, AMadam, would you sleep with me for a million dollars.@ The woman answered yes. AMadam, would you sleep with me for one hundred dollars.@ AWhat kind of woman do you think I am?@ Shaw replied, AWe have already established that. Now we are simply arguing over price.@
Some say that everybody has their price. Raise the bribe high enough and anybody can be bought. So often greed overwhelms morality. That is the reason that the Torah teaches over and over that we should hate bribery, appoint judges who do not take bribes. As Jethro, Moses= father-in-law said to Moses, AYou shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain.@ And as the book of Psalms teaches, the man who may dwell in God=s holy mountain is the one Awho never lent money at interest nor accepted a bribe against the innocent.@ (Psalms 15:5)
Does that mean the desire for wealth is bad? No. We need our appetite for money, it is what drives us to go out and work, to try to better ourselves. Once again the idea is not to destroy the evil inclination (Ayetzer hara@), but to control it.
Each of us must ask ourselves a question, are there values we have that are so important that we would not compromise them no matter how much money is offered? Could we turn down a bribe? Balaam could not. Hopefully we are better than Balaam.



“Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.”
(Numbers 20:11)

This double portion is the perfect opportunity to speak about anger. Anger is a theme that arises over and over throughout these stories.
In parshat Hukkat, the people complained to Moses because they had no water. God told Moses to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water for the people. Instead, Moses cried out “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!” (Numbers 20:10) Moses struck the rock twice with his stick and water came gushing out. As a result of his actions, God forbade Moses from entering the holy land.
What was Moses’ sin? Rashi suggests that he hit the rock when God told him to speak with the rock. This is true, but the punishment hardly seems to fit the crime. A more likely explanation is that Moses could no longer control his temper. When a leader cannot control his anger, he no longer is worthy of remaining the leader.
Anger also raises its ugly head in the story of Balaam, the pagan prophet. Hired to curse the Israelites, Balaam saddled his ass and set upon his journey. When his ass saw an angel in the road with a drawn sword, the ass stopped in his path. Three times Balaam beat the ass. Finally, the animal spoke to Balaam, saying “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?”
Balaam is so infuriated, he does not even notice the uniqueness of a donkey talking back. He yells back to the donkey, “If I had a sword with me, I would have killed you.” (Numbers 22:29) This little exchange is a sobering hint in the debate regarding gun control. How can we keep weapons out of the hands of those who cannot control their temper?
The portion ends with an act of anger and zeal on the part of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. He killed two people who were the ring leaders in undermining the sexual morality of the Israelite nation. For his act of anger he was rewarded, an issue I will discuss next week.
How are we to understand anger? Some today would see anger as a necessary part of the human psyche. If we cannot occasionally “blow off steam,” our anger will become so intense that we will explode. People need to lose their tempers every now and again to maintain an equilibrium.
In truth, anger is part of the yetzer hara (evil inclination), one of the primitive drives that make up human beings. Like all drives, anger needs to be controlled and channeled. Why did God create the capacity for anger in us humans to begin with? Without anger, we would never strive to cure injustice. Without anger, we would never stand up to evil or fight those who would wrong others. Without anger, Moses never would have slain the Egyptian who was beating the Israelite slave, beginning the chain of events that would lead to the exodus.
Nonetheless, too many people today cannot control their anger. Too many people fly into a rage at the smallest provocation. Too many people lose their temper, sometimes beating their spouse or children, sometimes screaming at their employees and others. Too often these people who cannot control their anger have access to weapons of destruction. When uncontrolled rage mixes with easy access to weapons, tragedies such as Columbine High School occur.
Ben Zoma taught, “Who is strong? Whoever controls their appetite.” One of our most primitive appetites is our anger. Under control, anger can fight injustice and better the world. Out of control, anger can destroy those we most love.