D’var Torah: Balak…..What We Can Learn From a Talking Horse

This week’s Torah portion could be entitled “The Jackass and the Donkey.”

The jackass is Balaam, the seer who’s hired by Balak to curse the Israelites. He takes his donkey and embarks on his mission. It’s a mission that God doesn’t think too highly of, for obvious reasons, so God places an angel right in Balaam’s path. But there’s a catch — only the donkey can see the angel. One thing leads to another and the poor donkey gets whacked not once, but three times, by Balaam when the angel blocks his path. If you didn’t like Balaam before, now you have even more reason to dislike him. He’s a false prophet and an animal beater.

Then something amazing happens. The donkey starts talking to Balaam, wanting to know, reasonably, why he was getting beaten up. Balaam doesn’t find anything unusual about his donkey talking to him, which says something about Balaam right there. He accuses the donkey of mocking him and tells the donkey he would’ve stabbed him with a sword if he’d had one. Even then Balaam doesn’t realize how dumb he sounds. He was ready to curse the Israelites off the face of the earth but he would need a sword to kill a poor donkey. Finally God opens Balaam’s eyes to the presence of the angel. Balaam sees that his ass was the true seer and that he, the false seer, was the true ass.

More than a few commentators have compared the talking donkey to another cultural icon – Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the 1960s TV show. Like Balaam’s donkey, Mr. Ed could only be heard by one person, Wilbur Post. Wilbur was a nice but bumbling guy who was always getting shown up by his horse, who was both intelligent and clever. We see a lot of talking animals in literature. Think of Aesop’s fables. The rabbits in “Watership Down.”  Or one of the best-loved children’s books of all time, “Charlotte’s Web,” where Charlotte the spider takes on a mission to save Wilbur the pig from the slaughterhouse. When children learn about this Torah portion, they probably think of another talking animal from the movies, the donkey in “Shrek” (with the voice of Eddie Murphy). It’s believed that this donkey was, in fact, based on Balaam’s talking ass.

It should be noted that there’s only one other instance in the Torah where an animal talks, and that’s the snake in the Garden of Eden. There’s no question that it’s a powerful device. But is it so far-fetched to be this unusual, really?

We attach human qualities to animals all the time. Everyone talks to their dog or cat. If you have a bird, they even answer back. We’re always amazed by the intelligence displayed by guide dogs and service dogs, dolphins and, of course, primates. There was a guide dog in the news this week that put itself in front of a car to prevent its owner from being struck. The dog was injured, but survived, and was hailed for its remarkable loyalty. And rightly so.

I don’t think most people would go to those lengths to save a life that’s not our own. We would do it instinctively for someone we love – a child, for instance – and there are exceptional people who rescue strangers from drowning or jump onto the subway tracks to save a person who fell. But as humans we tend to think too much – about our own personal safety, or how much our loved ones would suffer if we put ourselves needlessly in harm’s way. It’s hard to fault ourselves for a quality that’s innately human and even sensible. But the animals in our lives don’t over-think. They act, and they do it for the right reasons. They’re loyal. Kind. Generous of spirit. They give us a big greeting when we come home. Nora Ephron, whose passing I mentioned last week, had my favorite quote about that: “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

The rabbis regard the talking donkey as a miracle. But not just any ordinary miracle. In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, the rabbis list 10 supernatural events that were arranged by God at one very specific time — at twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation, right before the Sabbath. The list includes things like the rainbow that God left as a sign for Moses and his family. The mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers. The script of the original tablets with the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God. Balaam’s talking ass is given equal significance with these events.

Most Orthodox Jews believe the donkey actually gained the power of speech and talked to Balaam. As Reform Jews, we tend not to agree with this interpretation. We look for the symbolism and ask ourselves what message is being conveyed to us. What meaning can a talking donkey have in our lives? The answer is: quite a lot.

The donkey is everything Balaam isn’t. She — and it’s interesting to note that the donkey is a she – is honest, perceptive, and possessed with the trait we think of as horse sense. And, unlike Balaam, it’s the donkey’s natural inclination to do good. She doesn’t over-think whether or not to stop when she sees the angel. She doesn’t change her mind or worry about her own well-being. She acts out of loyalty to her owner. Simply put, she does God’s will.

The qualities that God wants us to display – decency, kindness toward others – have very little to do with the evolutionary ladder. In Genesis, God gave us dominion over animals. That meant stewardship, authority, even might and power. In Genesis 9:2, God says to Noach: “…let the awe and dread of you be upon all the land animals, and all the birds of the sky, and all that creep on the ground, and all the fish of the sea: they are given into your hands.” But nowhere does it say that dominion over God’s creatures is synonymous with superiority. Balaam’s donkey is a reminder of that. Who’s the finer animal here? The human? I don’t think so.

This talking donkey – and the significance our sages give this so-called “Shabbat miracle” – serves as a reminder that life can, and does, go topsy-turvy on us. This happens with alarming regularity and often when we least expect it. Our personal circumstances change. The world disappoints us. We’re reminded constantly on a global and individual scale that logic and human behavior often run in opposite directions. But sometimes the world needs to go topsy-turvy in order to wake us out of our reverie. It works for Balaam. He realizes the error of his ways and the potential dangers that his false prophecy presents. It works for us, too. Crisis and upheaval are painful, but also healthy. We hit our bumps and our brick walls, but we persevere.

“Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do — then do it with all your strength.” That quote is from someone who relied heavily on divine guidance to lead a people to freedom. His name was not Moses, but George Washington. On July 4th we celebrated his commitment to his cause: to show an oppressed people that, while they may hit obstacles, their potential to do God’s will is limitless.

As we go about our lives, may we all have the strength to realize our own potential. May we continue to respect and appreciate the gift of freedom and recognize the presence of miracles wherever and whenever they appear.

Amen…and Shabbat Shalom.

Low Pay is Fine, as Long as You Walk Like a Model….

I was sorry to see that Senator Marty Golden cancelled his upcoming “charm school” event. Really.

For those not from New York, Golden is a former police officer and ex-catering hall owner (his brother and wife now run the business) who until recently was the only Republican representing Brooklyn in the State Senate. His base is in Bay Ridge, which is also home to two other elected GOPs, Rep. Michael Grimm and Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, and Marine Park, where the barometer has moved to the right due largely to the influx of Orthodox Jewish residents.

If you don’t know what he looks like, Golden is a white-haired fellow of Irish descent who wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place at Tammany Hall.  He sponsors community events like free summer concerts and a hugely popular Halloween Walk in Marine Park. My kids still talk about the Halloween Walk, not because of the blood-dripping ghouls that popped out at them but because it was the day Marty Golden gave them each a Hershey’s Bar. Yep, it’s gonna be tough to get their vote.

On Monday, at the height of the etiquette class furor, Marty Golden presented a proclamation at MCU Field in Coney Island honoring Gary Carter, the late Mets legend (see photo below). Wearing a dapper suit and smiling as he posed with Cyclones mascots Sammy and PeeWee,  he wasn’t breaking a sweat — not from the 90-degree heat or from the criticism from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and just about everybody else that he was showing his true colors an out-of-touch throwback, and a wolfish one, at that. I wouldn’t want to show up at Golden’s door for a job interview.

According to the taxpayer-funded mailer his office sent out, Golden’s July 24 seminar at the family-owned Bay Ridge Manor was supposed to teach women “what’s new in the 21st Century as it relates to business etiquette and social protocol.” The curriculum included lessons on “posture, deportment and the feminine presence,” such as how to shake hands, navigate stairs and — my favorite — “walk like a model.” (I guess Golden has been watching Liz Krueger in the Senate Chamber for too long.)

Full disclosure: I spent 18 years writing newsletters for another Brooklyn state senator. We had a few unintended gaffes over the years, like the prostate screening newsletter with the relevant anatomical illustration that offended some sensibilities in Borough Park. (A text-only “shlong mailer” went out the following year.) From experience, I can tell you that newsletters are usually created not by one person but by several. Ideas are bounced around among the elected official and staff. Once these things are written and a proof comes back from the graphics department in Albany, they’re proofread for errors. There’s always time to re-do something that looks funny or doesn’t read right. I’ll say one thing. If “walk like a model” passed muster with Golden and his staff, I can only imagine the other mail that’s gone out to the public. There’s a good chance I’ve been missing out on some entertaining stuff.

The woman scheduled to preside over Golden’s so-called career development event was Phillipa Morrish, wife of longtime Bay Ridge community activist Larry Morrish, who was billed as a “Certified Protocol Consultant” — the capitalization isn’t mine — and president of a business called Etiquette Training International. Morrish’s business website (http://etiquettetraininginternational.com/) contains information about her finishing school and online classes, along with testimonials that are all from people in Guyana. The course module is rather eclectic. If “creating a positive first impression” and “wardrobe chic” aren’t enough for you, you might choose to explore something called “techno-etiquette.” What is that, exactly?  Learning not to say “f–k” whenever you hit the wrong key? I really don’t want to know what “Gift Giving Home and Abroad” is, either, or what sort of gifts she thinks women professionals ought to be giving.

Today’s City & State has the top ten Tweets about the cancelled class (http://www.cityandstateny.com/top-10-tweets-marty-goldens-feminine-presence-class/). Rita Meade ‏@ScrewyDecimal, who’s #6 on the list, says: “This is my neighborhood. This is my (current) state senator. THIS is why we have to vote, ladies. Get him outta here.”

Actually, I think Golden’s opposition to a minimum wage increase and his continuing belief that women should get paid less than men are more than enough reason to get him outta here. The etiquette class, while quaint, is offensive only because it’s gender specific. When my 18-year-old daughter was little, she attended a day-long etiquette class for both girls and boys at the Plaza Hotel. She and her friend Emily learned to eat french fries with a knife and fork. I thought it was a cute idea, and one with some potential usefulness in the real world. Maybe Marty Golden hasn’t spent enough time sitting next to men picking their teeth at lunch. Or maybe, as I suspect, he’s just an old-fashioned guy with old-fashioned ideas. And in his old-fashioned way, he was trying to help.

There’s a song from the early 1960s that I’ve been thinking about ever since the “feminine deportment” fiasco. The song is “Wives and Lovers,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It was a big hit by Jack Jones, and it goes like this:

Hey, little girl,
Comb your hair, fix your make-up.
Soon he will open the door.
Don’t think because
There’s a ring on your finger,
You needn’t try any more

For wives should always be lovers, too.
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.
I’m warning you.

Day after day,
There are girls at the office,
And men will always be men.
Don’t send him off
With your hair still in curlers.
You may not see him again.

For wives should always be lovers, too.
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.
He’s almost here.

Hey, little girl
Better wear something pretty,
something you’d wear to go to the city.
And dim all the lights,
Pour the wine, start the music.
Time to get ready for love.

Dim all the lights,
Pour the wine,start the music.
Time to get ready for love.
Time to get ready,time to get ready for love.
Time to get ready,time to get ready for love.

You Can’t Stop the Wheels From Turning….

Children and wheels: It seems so easy, but I missed the boat on that one.

First you buy the kid a tricycle, then a bicycle, and if you’re a little crazy and/or don’t mind ER visits, a unicycle. (I used to see a kid commuting to Edward R. Murrow H.S. on one. Amazing.) You might throw in a scooter, skateboard and roller blades. (I can’t watch anyone zip through traffic on roller blades. Death by pothole is not a good way to go.) Finally you reach the point, usually at 16, where the kid wants to stray farther and farther from home, and go faster and faster, in preparation for leaving home for good. That’s the real goal here even if we don’t want to admit it. And that’s when driver’s ed becomes a part of your life.

Not my life. My daughter Emily, who’s 18 and leaving for college next month, doesn’t drive. I thought she was in a very small minority, but it turns out she’s on the cutting edge of a trend where young people are relying increasingly on mass transit or, in non-urban areas, Greyhound or Amtrak, to get anywhere. They’re just fine with that, too. Yahoo News ran a story from Reuters on Sunday and reported that more than a quarter of  people in the 16 – 34 age group — the article gave this demographic the annoying nickname Millennials — lacked a driver’s license in 2010, up 5 percentage points from 2000. http://news.yahoo.com/americas-generation-y-not-driven-drive-145632280–sector.html) The story also indicated that many young adults are turning to virtual media as a replacement for the open road. That’s just weird.

Until I read the Yahoo article, I was feeling a bit guilty about Emily’s lack of driving ambition. (The pun is intentional, but I’ll save that for another post.) I come from sedentary, slow-moving stock. In a wolf pack, I’d be the one invariably left with the innards. According to family myth, I didn’t walk until I was two and my mother, frustrated at having to shlep me around, dangled an Entenmann’s donut about a foot in front of me. It worked.

I probably should have done something to fend off genetic inertia in my kids, like encouraging them to take tennis lessons. But that involved more movement than I’m accustomed to. I’m also overly cautious by nature. The less you move, the less chance there is to break an arm or leg. People ski into trees. They drown in riptides. The world is full of peril. Better to stay safe.

I didn’t deny my kids’ need for speed entirely. They had one of those Big Wheel things — a three-wheeled vehicle that rides at ground level so there’s nowhere to fall. When Emily was six, she asked for roller blades. I  got them for her, along with the requisite knee and elbow pads, and we went into the driveway to practice. For the next hour, she clung to the gate and screamed whenever one of her feet began to roll. I still have the photos. She never put the roller blades on again.

Eventually I got brave enough to buy both girls bikes. I got myself one too so I could demonstrate. We walked to the local schoolyard to try them out. I rode around and around in a big circle for a while, impressing Emily and Kate with my long-forgotten prowess. I was feeling pretty good about myself, still going around and around the track, until I remembered that I never learned how to make a 90-degree turn. Riding in circles was the height of my ability, a metaphor for my career as an outdoorsy mom. Kate grew to like her Strawberry Shortcake bike, but the training wheels never came off. Emily fared about as well on her new bike as she did on the roller blades. Teaching the girls to ride was not within the realm of possibility for me. Way too scary. The bikes are still in our shed, collecting cobwebs.

Kate says she always felt deprived that I never bought her the only wheeled item that she really wanted. It was a motorized kiddie car, one of those overpriced pink monstrosities with a picture of Barbie on the side. It wasn’t fear that stopped me, but good taste.

Emily is leaving for Bard in a month and nine days. She’s counting, I know. So am I, but in a different way. I’ve done my best to put the brakes on her childhood, to stop the wheels from turning and time from rolling on. Despite my best efforts, I’m proud to say I’ve failed. Emily is growing up despite my craziness.

On August 11, I’ll be the instrument of her departure, driving the car that takes her 130 miles from home to a place where adventure, and, yes, peril, await. I’ll just have to hope for the best. She’s been mentioning lately that she’d like to learn to ride a bike since the buildings on campus are so far apart. But I know my kid. I make a mental note to buy her rainboots. She’ll be spending a lot of time slogging on foot through the mud.

In Praise of Busy

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

Are you crazy busy? Not because you have to be, but by choice? I read Tim Kreider’s “Opinionator” piece, “The Busy Trap,” online in the Times ( see above link) right after I did the morning prayers — my daily wake-up call — and right before I launched into my other usual early-morning activity, playing on Facebook.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Kreider’s piece talks about the maniacal need many people have to overschedule their lives, and often their children’s lives, as a conscious effort to avoid idleness, which is synonymous with sloth. If we’re busy, even it’s with work we don’t really need or activities that don’t enrich our lives, we’re able to maintain the delusion that that our lives have more value than they actually do. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider writes.

A few thoughts here.

It’s important to note that the population he’s addressing has become increasingly small thanks to the lousy economy. I don’t know what kind of circles the author travels in, but most people I know work as much as they can because it’s a better alternative than, say, starving to death or living in your car. A week home with the flu is the closest many people get to idleness.

When I spent two days in the hospital after the birth of each of my kids, I joked that this was my idea of a vacation. Certainly it was the longest I spent in front of a television during my entire adult life, except to watch “Thirtysomething” in my twenties and, later, to feed my addiction to “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” I was a busy person — busy not to avoid doing nothing, but busy because I genuinely liked to work. Still do, in fact. I enjoy the mental aerobics of work. I enjoy creating something from nothing. I like the discipline that work, in this case writing, gives my life. I’d feel like a complete sloth if I didn’t spend some time each day putting words on the screen in front of me.

When I’m not working or tending to responsibilities at home or chatting with friends, I tend to occupy my time with activities that give the brain a workout. I suppose Tim Kreider would still consider me busy, and this is correct, up to a point. I do the Times crossword (except on Saturday, when it’s impossible for any normal human). I run through books of logic puzzles. I read a lot. I go on Facebook or check out the media outlets on  Twitter. But here’s the thing. These “busy” activities usually have a multitasking component that encompasses a degree of slothfulness. I’ll generally be listening to music or have the TV on in the background. (My daughter Kate finds it amazing that I know just about every episode of “The Nanny” by heart without knowing what a single character looks like, except of course Fran Drescher.)

Somewhere in the middle of reading or doing some non-work-related mental activity, I’ll invariably start daydreaming. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep for a few minutes. But then I’ll return to whatever activity or activities I was doing before, including the mind-wandering part. For me, this constitutes idleness, because the activities I choose to fill my day leave plenty of gaps for rumination. Some really good ideas have come to me while I’m doing the crossword. So contrary to what Tim Kreider contends, keeping busy and letting your mind roam free are not always mutually exclusive. You can be busy, according to my definition, and idle, according to his, at the same time.

I cannot imagine sitting around and doing nothing — I mean, really nothing. I’d go nuts and, frankly, I don’t think one’s anxiety level benefits if the brain is kept uncaged too long. Depending on the particular monsters you have in your closet, too much idleness can be a scary thing. Keeping busy is therapeutic, a way of maintaining one’s sanity and keeping at bay the stuff that’s messy or painful to confront. Denial, you say? Well, maybe. Okay, yes. But there are times in all our lives when reality is acceptable only in bite-sized pieces.

For some, like the author of the “Opinionator” piece, idle time is a friend and a joy that too many cast aside as worthless. For others, it’s more complicated.  We all need our escapes.

D’var Torah: Chukat…..Disappointment and Moving On

As most of you know, the writer Nora Ephron passed away this week. In addition to being a huge fan of her essays, I loved the movies she wrote and directed. They make me laugh and they focus on themes that most people can relate to. How we deal with love when disappointment follows, for instance. Or how we put one foot in front of the other when all hope appears to be lost.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” a man with a young son is torn apart by the death of his wife. Somehow, in spite of the odds, he manages to find new love three thousand miles away. Death is followed by healing. My all-time favorite Nora Ephron movie, the one I can watch again and again, is “When Harry Met Sally.” Throughout the movie, couples who have been married for a hundred years talk about how they met — usually the wife does all the talking – while a couple that’s obviously in love, played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, has a hard time connecting in the way they should. At the end of the movie they do connect, of course, but there’s a fair amount of unhappiness and heartache for both parties in between.

I thought of Nora Ephron when I read this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. Three terrible events take place, not coincidentally, on the last three stops of the Israelites’ journey. First we have the death of Miriam. Her passing receives greater mention in the Torah than most women receive. We know her time of death, on the first new moon, and her place of burial, in Kadesh. We know she is a woman of great importance, and that she’s worthy of the ritual of purification that’s explained just prior to her death. Miriam’s death is followed by the death of her brother, Aaron. It’s not clear why the so-called crime he committed is severe enough to warrant God sending him up to Mount Hor to die, but that’s the punishment he receives nonetheless.

Then finally, we learn that Miriam and Aaron’s brother, Moses, will never get to enter the Promised Land. His leadership will end in profound personal disappointment. Another leader will get to take the Israelites on the final step of their journey toward freedom.

Despite all the heartbreak, it becomes clear that the Torah portion is ultimately a hopeful one. After a long period of bad luck, the Israelites enjoy victories on the battlefield and their fortune begins to change. The despair they felt about spending the rest of their lives in the desert, and the whining and complaining that caused Moses to lose his patience with them and led to his own punishment from God – this eventually turns into songs of gratitude and victory. Moses and Aaron have paid a very steep price, but the Israelites just keep marching on toward the Promised Land.

So here, too, we witness death followed by healing. We see how terrible disappointment can be followed by hope and possibility. In our own lives, we can all point to occasions where those same themes have held true.

After a loved one dies, we enter a period of mourning. We know how long the official mourning period lasts, but in reality we mourn for much longer than that. Slowly, however, we open our eyes and begin to take baby steps to look beyond our grief. At the beginning of the process we may view the world through the eyes of our lost loved one. We imagine how he or she would react to a situation. We hold conversations with our loved one, often out loud. Then we take a deep breath and we start to see the world anew through our loved one’s eyes and our own eyes. We start to live again, with the memory of our loved one stowed away safely in our heart. The healing process is underway. What we thought was impossible has become possible.

Near the end of any journey we reflect on how that journey went for us. In the case of a literal journey, we tend to reflect not just on the places we saw on vacation but the places we perhaps didn’t have time to see. This is true for our larger journeys, too, the metaphorical ones. For most of us, anyway, we don’t always get what we want. We end up in a different career than we imagined, or we end up out of work at one time or another. Our children don’t turn out exactly as we planned. We get sick. We learn quickly that marriage is a lot harder than it looks on television, or even in Nora Ephron’s movies.

Our lives take unexpected turns, and what we choose to do about it and how we deal with it is up to us. When God told Moses he would never fulfill his mission of bringing the Israelites to freedom, what did he do? Did he despair? Well, he probably did. Who wouldn’t? But did he give up, out of anger or despair? No, he didn’t. He put one foot in front of the other and went forward. The victories in battle must’ve been bittersweet for Moses at that point. But they were still victories. Moses continued on – moving ahead — in spite of a crushing disappointment. He redefined what he hoped to achieve and decided that, maybe, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes you who you are. He saw that his destiny was to become a teacher as well as a leader – someone who could pass the mantle of leadership to the next generation. For Moses, the journey, while it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, remained both meaningful and worthwhile.

There is much for all of us to learn from our own journeys, and it’s the unexpected twists, turns and detours that tend to drive the lessons home. That’s why we’re all drawn to stories of people who manage to overcome overwhelming obstacles – the homeless girl who ends up at Harvard. The young woman with the flesh-eating bacteria, whose incredible will has kept her alive.

This week I said goodbye to a friend, a wonderful and devoted friend, who in a brief time went from being a successful and well-respected elected official to one who has been publicly disgraced and vilified. What the headlines didn’t say is that he is a man of uncommon decency and compassion, and a man whose advice typically is right on the money. Certainly his own journey has been derailed, and in a major way. The night before he left, we sat in his car and talked. I found it hard to say goodbye, but he looked ahead with complete and utter determination. “I’m going to walk in there,” he said, “and, God willing, one day I’m going to walk out.”

 Let us all take stock, then, of our own journey. Instead of tormenting ourselves with doubts and regrets, let us all appreciate the journey no matter what the destination might be. Finally, let us all have the courage and fortitude to withstand the unexpected and difficult detours that life presents us with.

 I’ll end with a quote from Nora Ephron. “Above all,” she said, “be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.