Parshas Balak (5776)
Just recently I found myself in the “Best Sellers” section of a local bookstore where I picked up a book in which I found described some of the strangest, most magical, supernatural things - just the type of stuff you'd expect to find in any Harry Potter novel - like, for example, an all-red cow whose ashes have the power to purify those who have come in contact with the dead; a mysterious, roving rock that follows people around and provides them with water whenever they need it; a copper serpent on a flagpole that cures those who are bitten by serpents merely by looking at it; a wicked wizard whose curses turn into blessings; a donkey that talks, etc ... only this “Best Seller” was non-fiction!!!
That's right! The Torah (Bible) - the best-selling book of all time (even outselling Harry Potter!) - mentions all these strange, supernatural occurrences and more in last week's Torah portion, Parshas Chukas, as well as in this week’s Torah Portion, Parshas Balak:
The Red Heifer was the cow that G-d instructed Moses to burn and sprinkle its ashes on a person who became spiritually impure through contact with a dead person (see Numbers 19:1-22). The Mysterious Rock was that which accompanied the Jews and provided them with fresh water for forty years in the desert until they reached the Promised Land (ibid 20:1-2). The Copper Serpent was wrapped around a tall flagpole for all the Jews to see, so that those who were bitten by the serpents that G-d sent to punish them, could be magically healed by staring at the copper serpent (ibid 21:4-9). The Wicked Wizard was Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, who was hired by the evil King Balak to curse the Jewish people, but whose curses were turned into blessings by G-d (ibid Chapters 22-24). And the Talking Donkey miraculously opened its mouth to complain as it was being hit by its rider Bilaam, when an angel of G-d appeared in their path (ibid 22:21-35).
Now, we all understand the great curiosity and fascination that children (and adults) of all ages have with magic, wizards and the occult - not to mention that it makes for big bucks if you write a best-selling series about these things!
But what troubles me is why the Torah seems to record so many miraculous and "supernatural" events and occurrences? What really is the point of telling us about a magical rock that followed our ancestors around wherever they journeyed? Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, the Torah is meant to be the repository of G-d's truth, the very basis of our entire religion, a very serious work indeed. G-d wasn't just trying to top the New York Times best-sellers list! So, granted, all this "rock-roving" and "serpent-staring" and “donkey-talking” makes for a "riveting" read, but what really is the purpose of the Torah recording all these strange, otherworldly events?
And it is especially troubling when you consider that, for the better part of our history, the Jewish people have experienced few such supernatural events, and we’ve always thought of Judaism as a down-to-earth religion that doesn't rely on "magic" or other "freaky" things in order to impress us of its truth and relevance.
G-D AND THE MASK OF NATURE
The Torah teaches that the Hebrew language differs significantly from all other languages in that it was actually created by G-d, whereas all other languages were made up by man, and are, by definition, arbitrary. This explains why, in the English language, you can "drive" on the "parkway" and "park" in the "driveway"; you can "play" at a "recital" and "recite" at a "play"; when you send something by "car" it's called a "shipment", when you send it by "ship" it's called a "cargo" …. it’s English and it doesn’t have to make sense! Consequently, in the Hebrew language, when two different concepts are expressed by the same Hebrew word, there has to be a connection between them. (Otherwise, G-d could have chosen to use two different Hebrew words!).
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for nature and the Hebrew word for being submerged beneath the surface, are one and the same - teva. And the Hebrew word for miracle and the Hebrew word for pole are also the same - nes. (See Numbers 21:8) Also, the Hebrew word olam means both world and concealment.
So where am I going with all this …? The great medieval commentators explain that the entire purpose of the open miracles that the Jewish people experienced in the desert, and that were subsequently recorded in the Torah for us to read about and study, was in order that we should realize that, ultimately, everything that happens in this world, including all of nature, is just an expression of G-d's will, and that – more than we tend to realize - G-d is very much a part of our everyday lives.
Our ancestors experienced during those forty years all different kinds of supernatural miracles, such as the Roving Rock providing them with water and the Copper Serpent healing them from serpent bites, in order to pound into their collective conscience the idea that it is G-d's will which ultimately makes things happen, and that even after they enter the Land of Israel and begin to live a more "normal" existence, they should never forget that it is G-d's hand behind nature and everything that happens to us on earth.
Teva means nature, but it also means submerged, because G-d is submerged in nature, and hiding, so to speak, just beneath the surface. When we witness something as awesome as a child being born, we must realize the obvious hand of the Al-mighty in this "natural" miracle. Every morning, when our children wake up, we teach them to say “Modeh Ani.... Thank you, G-d, for giving me another day of the most precious gift of all - the gift of life!" Some people unfortunately don't get up in the morning … and we don't take the miracle of life for granted.
But G-d knows that it is not easy for man to see through the "mask" of teva - to see Him submerged below the surface. The Olam, the world that He created for us to enjoy, also conceals His Divine presence, making it hard for us to see G-d in nature and in our daily lives.
G-d therefore performed various miracles and other "supernatural" events in the presence of the entire Jewish nation, and then had them recorded in His Torah. These miracles, known in Hebrew as nes, are G-d's way of sticking His hand above the surface of nature, waving at us from atop a tall pole, saying, "Hello, everybody, remember me? I am the One who gave you all the things you enjoy in nature - the beautiful sunsets, the ability to see them, the wonderful families you have, everything - but I had to perform this supernatural miracle just to remind you that I am always there for you, just beneath the surface".
So, to set the record straight, Judaism does not rely on miracles - the stuff which our religion consists of is the day-to-day recognition of G-d's being a part of our natural lives. But, for example, when ”You-Know-Who” sends 39 Scud missiles over densely populated areas in Israel, damaging 3,991 apartments and residential buildings (!), and hitting 17 schools, causing thousands to abandon their homes and causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage - and only one Jew dies as an indirect result of a missile - this nes serves as a reminder that even when Saddam is no longer a threat, and we are back to our relatively peaceful everyday existence, G-d is right there with us, just beneath the surface, waiting for us to let Him into our lives.
And, as they would say at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, this is a very important lesson for us Muggles to understand and incorporate into our own lives.
"HORMIN MONSTER" AND THE LEGENDS OF THE TALMUD
Now if you thought Bible stories were stranger than fiction, wait till you see what kind of stories the Talmud has in it! The Talmud, which is the source for the oral interpretations of the Written Torah, has within its 2700 pages some of the strangest and most esoteric passages, to rival the best that J.K. Rowling has to offer. Here's just one example:
Said Rabba bar Bar-Chanah: I saw Hormin the son of Lilith running along the battlements of the city wall of Mechuza. A cavalryman below, riding on an animal, could not keep up with him. Once, two mules were saddled for [Hormin] and stood on the two sides of the River Donag. He jumped from one mule to the other while holding two cups of wine in his hands, pouring from one to the other without a drop falling to the earth. That was the day when things "rise to the heavens and descend to the depths" [Tehillim 107:26]; finally the King's men heard of [Hormin's doings] and put him to death (see Bava Basra 73a-b).
Now it would be very convenient to explain these seemingly silly stories as the ramblings of Rabbis who obviously had way too much time on their hands, and very fanciful imaginations as well. But the fact is that the most brilliant minds in the history of our people - Torah scholars like Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, etc. - spent the better part of their lives poring over the Talmudic texts, and writing great commentaries on every page, including the page mentioned above. So there is obviously something deeper to these strange legends in the Talmud.
If you are interested in exploring what these and other Talmudic "legends" really mean, may I humbly recommend a wonderful book called The Juggler and the King: An Elaboration of the Vilna Gaon’s Interpretations of the Hidden Wisdom of the Sages by Rabbi Aharon Feldman, published by Feldheim, and available online or at your local Jewish bookstore. The insights into life that are encoded in the "stories" of the Talmud are fascinating and enlightening. You won't be disappointed!