Friday, June 25, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Balak 5770 – Beating Our Donkeys II

It's a funny thing. Sometimes, one gets so wrapped up in wanting to share one's thoughts, ideas, and revelations with others, and completely fails to see and heed the value in their own thoughts for their selves. A case in point is a musing for parashat Balak that I wrote twelve years ago, at a time when, coincidentally, I was working as media specialist at OSRUI, as I am again doing this summer. As I was perusing previous musings on Balak and read this one, I discovered it offered and important and powerful lesson for me - and it has a message I need to heed.

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Balak 5758 - Updated and Revised for 5770

How many times must we "beat our donkeys" before our eyes are opened and we see the truth that our own blindness and stubbornness are the real impediments? Too often we really can’t see past the ends of our noses - individually, and collectively.

In the incident with Bilaam, the ass and G"d's angel, we have the first example of "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." It's a concept oft referred to in Twelve-Step programs. Addiction is often the cause of such behavior. Yet one need not be an addict to anything (except perhaps one's own ego) to exhibit the same follish behavior.

Three times, Bilaam hits his donkey. When he didn't get the expected result the first time, Bilaam could have learned the lesson and moved on to another tactic. But no, he repeats himself, and expects his mount to respond differently. Of course it doesn't.

Then yet a third attempt. I can just hear G"d sighing "Oy! What a shlemiel!" Obviously frustrated by Bilaam's refusal to learn, G"d gives voice to the donkey. What the donkey effectively says is "Look, this obviously isn't working. Shouldn't you be looking for another cause of your problems?" Obviously the light finally dawns for Bilaam and he can see at last the angel that G"d has sent to block his way. An effective tec hnique for attention-getting, wouldn't you say?

[A brief digression. while there is clearly a lesson for Bilaam in all this, there's also a lesson for G"d and for us of a different sort. Sometimes, a message or sign that may seem obvious to us might not be so obvious to the person with whom we are trying to communicate. Bilaam didn't get it, at first. While it'd true that a message might be more effective the harder someone has to work to receive it, that's not always the best scenario. I always think of the "give him the seda-give" game of charades that plays out in Mel Brook's "Young Frankenstein." There are times when it is better to be direct and not play charades. There are times when making the other party work for the answer is appropriate. It's difficult to know which approach is best. In this case, perhaps G"d had an ulterior motive. Or G"d realized that Bilaam had to open his eyes to possibilities before true communication is possible. Powerful lesson, no matter how you look at it.]

We get wrapped up in our paradigms, develop tunnel vision, and sometimes just cannot see what is really there, blinded by our own desires and prejudices. How many times have you walked into a room, looking for something which was right there in front of you, yet in your harried state, did not see? I am sure we have all experienced such moments. [Note from 5770 - when I first wrote this next words in 5758, and then repeated them a few years later in 5761, they were timely and fit actual circumstances, Here it is, years later, and they fit equally as well yet again. Ah, the frustration of realizing we're not always learning, growing and maturing as well as we think we are!] I, myself, experienced some of that this week. Instead of looking for root causes of problems within myself and my own behaviors, I sought to blame other circumstances, other people for my problems, my roadblocks. I repeated old, learned patterns of behavior and blinded myself to the truths. But then, like Bilaam, my eyes were opened.  I won't go into the story here, but suffice it to say that from now on, I must remember to look outside my prejudices, my paradigms.

In this story is also another lesson to be learned. That of recognizing intentions. And it is another lesson tied in with the story of Bilaam. Why couldn't Bilaam curse Israel? Because Gd wouldn't let him, or because Bilaam himself could not? I think the latter.  Because Bilaam's intentions were good. To speak the truth that Gd had told to him.

Bilaam was charged with a difficult task-to speak the truth. Truth speakers often have a hard time relating to people, because sometimes their words and messages are hurtful to those hearing them. But what I have learned is that, hurtful or not, the truth is the truth, and must be recognized and accepted for what it is. We can rail against the truth, but when we do so, we only hurt ourselves. Better we should embrace the truth, make it part of ourselves, and grow from learning it.

[Note from 5770: I love contradicting myself. Looking back at what I wrote, I find myself a little less comfortable with the brash approach to truth telling. I have learned, as I hope we all have, to temper how we says things. Yes, there are times when blatant, un-varnished truth is best, but you'd best be darn sure that's the case. Even when it comes to ourselves, tempering how we reveal our own truths can be wise. It's too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you've figured yourself out, when the reality is quite different. It's a common for the exhilaration of self-discovery to lead to even more self-delusion!]

Knowing that Israel was blessed and his people would be defeated, Prince Balak could have found a way to embrace the truth-and perhaps save his people from destruction. But he chose to ignore the truth and his people paid the price. When we ignore the truths around us, we pay the price too.

This Shabbat, let us all learn to see the obstacles that are really blocking our way-putting aside our blinders, and opening ourselves to the truths around us. Tempered, as needed, to fit the circumstances.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2010, portions © 1998, 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Korakh 5770-Camp Rebellion (Redux 5758)


We, here it is, twelve years later, and once again I'm spending the summer at OSRUI (Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute) camp in beautiful Oconomowoc, Wisconsin as Media Specialist. Last weekend I was involved with the annual Hava Nashira songleaders workshop, and this week and next are intense times of preparation for the arrival of the campers. Given the hectic swchedule, I offer you this retreade musing from 5768, written early in the summer of '98 when I last worked at OSRUI as Media Specialist. Enjoy. I'll be interested to see what new adventures and learning experienbces occur during this summer of camp. You'll be hearing about them in my musings, I am sure.


Random Musings Before Shabbat-Korach 5758

Camp Rebellion

There's one in every group. A rebel. A troublemaker. The video chugim I teach here at camp are no exception. And believe me, there are times when I wish the ground would open and swallow my troublemakers whole, just like Korach and his followers.

The youngest campers are here for almost two weeks. In that time, I might meet with one of my video chugs 7 or 8 times for 50 minutes. Already a huge time constraint. Creating a video takes time and effort, planning, and most of all, cooperation. When the rebels begin to assert themselves, the process becomes even more difficult.

Rebels and troublemakers are products of an individualistic viewpoint. Torah illustrates this about Korach, twice. First, it says that Korach took (in the singular form) himself, along with Datan and rise up against Moshe. (Numbers 16:1)  Why not a plural form, representing the trio of rebels? And later on, in 16:3, Korach uses the plural form "community ARE holy." These opposite verb tense form examples both tell us that Korach and his kind see the community as individuals, and are acting for themselves, for selfish reasons.

The rebel seeks not to further the community's cause, no matter how loudly they may proclaim that to be their goal. They seek only their own selfish goals. That is one lesson we learn from this parasha.

The Talmud teaches us that this parasha advises us to not be like Korach, that we should not be quarrelsome. Clearly our Jewish tradition teaches us that argument and controversy are an essential part of life and discourse - when they are arguments for the sake of better understanding Torah, life, good vs. evil, and G"d. But being quarrelsome for mere self-aggrandizement, the kind of behavior that Korach and his followers engaged in, does not meet the standard.

Dealing with the rebels in my chugim, I can see why G"d got so frustrated that G”d had to take drastic action and eliminate the troublemakers completely. I don't have that luxury, I'm afraid. So what can I do? Well, I come to camp not to teach video, but I come to teach Judaism, to teach Torah. And what a perfect opportunity I am presented with in this parasha.

This morning when one of my chugs got pretty quarrelsome, aided and abetted by the efforts of the group rebel, I seized the moment. I stopped the group and asked who knew the story of this week's Torah parasha. Here at camp, there's always at least one kid you can count on to know the answers, no matter how young. And sure enough, I got the answer - in simple terms. That Korach and his friends defied Moshe and G"d, and G"d punished them by having
the earth open up and swallow them. (One skeptic in the group chimed in "Oh, it was probably just an earthquake.") I asked the group why they thought G"d had given such a harsh punishment. One smart-aleck said "Oh, G"d just likes movies with lots of special effects." Another camper said "because they deserved it for challenging Moshe and G"d." A third chimed in "Do we have to
talk about all this G"d stuff now? I want to make a movie." Many others echoed that sentiment with grunts and comments. Then the rebel spoke up completely off topic, describing some gory, blood and effect filled fantasy scene he wanted to put in this chug's video. All of a sudden, the group broke into disharmony and discord again.

After a few moments, I managed to regain control-not by shouting, but by simply standing still and quiet and saying, "When you're ready to go on, I will. Now, does anyone else have a thought on why G"d was so harsh to Korach?"

Then, out of nowhere, a quiet young camper, who hadn't said much at all these past two weeks spoke up. He said the Israelites are having a hard enough time getting through the wilderness to the land of milk and honey, and the last thing they need  is to fight amongst themselves. Then, almost too quiet for anyone to hear, he added "just like it is here." I asked him to repeat that-loudly. This time he said "just like we're doing-fighting and not getting anywhere."

Well, I wish  could say that a hush fell over the group at that point,
everyone nodded in assent, and we proceeded to work together to finish our video project. The reality was far from that. Happily ever after happens in the movies more than real life, I'm sorry to say. But a battle had been won. At least one young mind saw the value in cooperation. And no doubt his words did influence a few others. So more seeds were planted. Whether we finished our project or not, I had done some of the job I had come here to do with this group.

This Shabbat is a time to think about quarreling, arguments, and the like. Right now, the Jewish people are again fighting amongst themselves in a manner not reminiscent of Hillel and Shammai, which represents the "good," or "constructive," kind of controversy, but more in the manner of how Korach, Datan and Abiram challenged Moshe. How are we going to make it to our promised land if we waste all our time and energy in fighting with each other? What can we do to defuse the situation, to be peacemakers, before G"d again becomes frustrated and has to take drastic action?

May yours be a Shabbat of shalom, with perhaps a few little good arguments, for the sake of Torah and G”d, mixed in for good measure. And resolve, perhaps, when confronted with a quarrel of the "Korach-ian" kind, to do the only smart thing to do in that situation: refuse to become engaged in it.

Shabbat Shalom

©2010 and 1998 by Adrian A. Durlester

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