Friday, July 15, 2011

Sounds of Silence and Talking Donkeys

Last Friday, I was honored to be the lay leader for Shabbat services here at Adas Emuno, and I thought I'd share with you some of that experience.

First, we opened by reading together the lyrics written by Paul Simon from the Simon and Garfunkel song, Sounds of Silence.  Here they are:

The Sounds of Silence
Paul Simon

Hello darkness, my old friend

I've come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains

Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone

Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light

That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share

And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools", said I, "You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you

Take my arms that I might reach you"

But my words, like silent raindrops fell

And echoed

In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming

And the sign said,
"The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"

And whispered in the sounds of silence

I believe that the song is familiar to most, it was a big hit back in the 60s, but half a century later, you just never know, so here's a video from YouTube that plays the song while displaying the lyrics:

Paul Simon's lyrics draws on the Biblical polemic against graven images and idol worship, but brings a modern sensibility to it, and an insistence on social justice that has its roots in the Nevi'im, the books of the prophets, who truly came from the margins of ancient society, not the centers of power such as court or Temple.  There is also an echo of the commandment to not stand idly by while another is being harmed here, in the insistence that we not remain silent in the face of injustice.  It is a reminder of the silence that greeted the Holocaust, a protest against contemporary evils, and a call to action.

We then proceeded with the service, and later, before we reached the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing, we read together the lyrics from the Leonard Cohen song, If It Be Your Will:

If It Be Your Will
Leonard Cohen

If it be your will
That I speak no more

And my voice be still

As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you

From this broken hill

All your praises
They shall ring

If it be your will

To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill

Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will

To make us well

And draw us near

And bind us tight

All your children here
In their rags of light

In our rags of light

All dressed to kill

And end this night

If it be your will

This is a song about pain and suffering, about going through hell physically, and/or emotionally, and praying for healing.  Here is another YouTube video with a recording of Leonard Cohen:

After completing the healing prayer, it was time for the Dvar Torah, literally, a word of Torah, and the parsha or Torah portion for last week was Parsha Balak, Balak being the name of the king of Moab who figures prominently in the story being told in that section.  It's actually a rather unique section of the Torah, because the focus is not on the Jewish people or any individual member thereof.  After all, once we get past the preliminaries, Genesis is about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons, and then the other four books are about Moses mainly, and sometimes about Aaron and his sons and grandsons, and Miriam, but mainly its Moses, and the Israelites collectively. 

But in this story, the focus is on Balaam, who is a sorcerer and also a prophet of God, but not one of the Israelites.  Balaam is a Midianite.  And this is an important point, in my opinion.  What this indicates is that you do not have to be Jewish, or an Israelite, or Hebrew, to worship God, or even be a prophet. You can trace this understanding back to the story of Noah, where a basic religion and ethical code for all the peoples of the world is presented. And so there are priests, shamans, and prophets who come from other peoples, and the outlook is that each people forges their own relationship with God. It has to be done as a community, the individual is not enough, the group must take responsibility for itself and its conduct. And every community, every people, has to make its own deal with God, to create their own just society. In the Torah, the Jewish people were chosen, and chose to accept a special covenant, special responsibilities, and special hardships. But there are as many relationships with God, pathways to God, as there are communities.  This stands in contrast to later, universalist religions where there is only one path to God that all must follow, and where the emphasis is on the individual relationship to the divine, rather than on the community.

So, the story begins with King Balak of Moab, who viewed the Israelites wandering through the desert as enemies, and is not willing to give them safe passage.  So he sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to speak with Balaam, and ask Balaam to come with them to Moab and to put a curse on the Israelites. But God appears to Balaam and tells him not to go, saying, "You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!" So he refuses, but King Balak sends more prestigious messengers, offering to reward Balaam with great riches, and this time God tells Balaam he can go, but he must only speak the words that God tells him to.
  Here's an excerpt, in English translation of course, from Numbers 22:

21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.

22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

23. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it back onto the road.

24. The angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side.

25. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam's leg against the wall, and he beat her again.

26. The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.
27. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam's anger flared, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.
28. The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?"
29. Balaam said to the she-donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30. The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No."

31. The Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

32. The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you, for the one embarking on the journey has hastened against me.

33. When the she-donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, now also I would also have killed you and spared her [the she-donkey]."

34. Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return."

35. The angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak." So Balaam went with Balak's dignitaries.

Now, this too is quite unusual.  Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we find a talking animal?  That's a motif that comes up commonly in myths, folktales, and nowadays in cartoons (can you imagine Eddie Murphy as the donkey?).  And the angel as well is much more conversational and personal than the typical supernatural messengers that appear in the sacred text.  All in all, the story of a talking donkey is a comedy, and a bit of a farce, and it may well be that this was a folktale that originated among the Midianites or Moabites, and not the Israelites, and then later became incorporated into the Torah.  It certainly has elements that indicate it is more like oral tradition than written scripture.  For that alone, I think this is a wonderful section of the Five Books of Moses.

After this encounter, Balaam arrives in Moab, and tells Balak to build seven altars, and offer sacrifices to God, which he does. And then Balaam blesses instead of curses the Israelites, saying, "How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?" King Balak is angry, takes Balaam to a second location, builds altars and offers sacrifices, and again Balaam has no choice but to bless the Jewish people. King Balak then tries a third location, with the same result. This illustrates a difference in mode of thinking, with the nonliterate, oral mindset of Balak, who thinks in concrete terms, and imagines the divine to be local, immanent, tied to a particular place.  In contrast, the story shows that for the monotheism of the Israelites, God is omnipresent (a similar theme is found in the book of Jonah, where it is shown that it is impossible to run away and escape from God).  This conception requires an abstract mode of thought that is all but impossible without literacy, and the religion of Moses is quite clearly a religion based on the sacred text received at Mount Sinai, a religion rooted in the written word.

So, Balaam makes with a blessing, the beginning of which is part of Jewish liturgy, but which then goes into a brutal, agonistic mode (this from Numbers 24):

5. How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
6. They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water. 

7. Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.

8. God, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows [into their blood].

9. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.

And then Balaam concludes with a prophecy about the end days and redemption, when the evil of Assyria, Esau, and the Amalek will be defeated. This is the first apocalyptic vision of armageddon that appears in the Bible.  The word armageddon comes from the Hebrew Har Megiddo, Har meaning mountain, so it literally is a geographical location, Mount Megiddo.  But for those interested in the so-called end days, this is where it all begins.

The parsha concludes with a second story, where the enemies of the Israelites try a new tactic, getting the Israelites to sin and thereby lose God's favor, and they do so by sending in Moabite and Midianite women to seduce the men.  God's anger at this immorality is reflected in the outbreak of disease in the Israelite camp, but we perhaps can understand it in contemporary terms as an outbreak of STDs, and it might even be that this was an early form of biological warfare (perhaps comparable to the early settlers in the New World giving the Native Americans diseased blankets?).  The response is quite extreme in this story, as God tells Moses to execute the guilty ones.  But what happens is that one of the leaders of the Israelites is cavorting in public with a Midianite princess, until Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron and therefore a priest, kills them both with his spear. Not only is this violent, but also phallic, as the way, I believe, the story is understood is that the couple are caught in the act, speared together in a manner that Sigmund Freud would certainly have much to say about.  It's brutal, but again these are ancient times, and the Israelites were not that much more advanced over their neighbors back then, it was a constant struggle according to the stories in the Bible.  But in this instance, the ritual sacrifice ends the plague, which perhaps can be understood as the threat of execution put the fear of God into the men, and put an end to the promiscuous behavior that spread the disease.

The point, I believe, is not to sanitize these stories, but to understand them, not necessarily taking them literally, but as a reflection of a struggle to emerge out of the oral, tribal, agonistic mode of life, and evolve into something new, and better, a people governed by law and justice, ethics and rationality. It was a long and difficult struggle, but the Israelites were engaged in it long before others were.  And we understood that you don't make progress by forgetting your history, and editing out all of your mistakes and failures and wrongdoings, but by remembering them, and striving not to repeat them, and to make things better.

The progress can be seen in the concluding lines of the Haftarah accompanying this Torah portion, taken from the Prophet Micah (6: 7-8), which comes after another apocalyptic vision:

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?

For me, those this sums up better than anything what the Torah tries to teach us, what is the basis of our religion.

The service then proceeded as usual, but before the Mourner's Kaddish, I read a poem by Solomon ben Judah Gabirol, one of the Hebrew Poets of Medieval Spain, translated into English by the 19th century Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus:

Almighty! what is man?

But flesh and blood.

Like shadows flee his days,

He marks not how they vanish from his gaze,
Suddenly, he must die-
He droppeth. stunned, into nonentity.
Almighty! what is man?

A body frail and weak.

Full of deceit and lies,

Of vile hypocrisies.
Now like a flower blowing,

Now scorched by sunbeams glowing.

And wilt thou of his trespasses inquire?

How may he ever bear
Thine anger just, thy vengeance dire?
Punish him not, but spare,

For he is void of power and strength!

Almighty! what is man?
By filthy lust possessed,

Whirled in a round of lies,

Fond frenzy swells his breast.

The pure man sinks in mire and slime,

The noble shrinketh not from crime,

Wilt thou resent on him the charms of sin?

Like fading grass,

So shall he pass.
Like chaff that blows
Where the wind goes.

Then spare him, be thou merciful, O King,

Upon the dreaded day of reckoning!

Almighty! what is man?

The haughty son of time

Drinks deep of sin,

And feeds on crime

Seething like, waves that roll,

Hot as a glowing coal.

And wilt thou punish him for sins inborn?

Lost and forlorn,

Then like the weakling he must fall,

Who some great hero strives withal.

Oh, spare him, therefore! let him win

Grace for his sin!

Almighty! what is man?

Spotted in guilty wise,

A stranger unto faith,

Whose tongue is stained with lies,

And shalt thou count his sins so is he lost,

Uprooted by thy breath.
Like to a stream by tempest tossed.

His life falls from him like a cloak,

He passes into nothingness, like smoke.

Then spare him, punish not, be kind, I pray,

To him who dwelleth in the dust, an image wrought in clay!

Almighty! what is man?

A withered bough!
When he is awestruck by approaching doom.

Like a dried blade of grass, so weak, so low

The pleasure of his life is changed to gloom.

He crumbles like a garment spoiled with moth;
According to his sins wilt thou be wroth?

He melts like wax before the candle s breath,

Yea, like thin water, so he vanisheth,

Oh, spare him therefore, for thy gracious name,

And be not too severe upon his shame!

Almighty! what is man?

A faded leaf!

If thou dost weigh him in the balance lo!

He disappears a breath that thou dost blow.

His heart is ever filled
With lust of lies unstilled.

Wilt bear in mind his crime
Unto all time?

He fades away like clouds sun-kissed,

Dissolves like mist.

Then spare him! let him love and mercy win,

According to thy grace, and not according to his sin!

The medieval mentality is also different from our own, less comforting and gentle, but it too is part of our long history, a tradition that encompasses the ancient and medieval as well as the modern and contemporary, a tradition of balance and harmony, and a tradition of freedom, justice, and memory.

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