While the announcement was fifteen months in the making, it still arrived with a sense of unexpected surprise. On Wednesday, our residents were informed that we will begin opening our doors a little wider, allowing them more opportunities to get outside the walls of 8831 Venice and (re)engage with the world. In practical terms, this means more chances to visit with family, attend 12-step meetings, and maybe even grab a coffee with a friend. While the benefits of greater engagement with the world are immense, the risks (beyond COVID-19 infection) are significant and real. The path of moving from restriction to greater expansiveness is fraught with risks and challenges. The good news is that this week’s parashah provides us with guidance for navigating the benefits, risks, and uncertainty of just such a journey.
Since January, when we began reading the book of Exodus, the primary focus has been almost exclusively on Moses and his relationship with the Israelites as they work to shed the internal and external vestiges of their slave identity. As we’ve seen with the Israelites’ ongoing post-Egypt journey, the external threats to well-being (conflict with neighbors, natural disasters, etc.) are significant. But it’s the internal threats that may be even more dangerous. Over the past several weeks, we have read about the internal struggles of a community trying to get itself unstuck and figure itself out. And it has not been a smooth ride. On a communal level, there’s been an attempted insurrection and multiple instances of disobedience to G!D-given laws. And on a leadership level, we’ve read about the deaths of two of the three key individuals, with the third losing his temper to the point that it required an intervention from Above.
This week, in one of the most unique sections of the Torah, the primary focus is not on the Israelites, but on their neighbors. Moreover, the style and format of the text also changes: it makes a quick tangent from the narrative of the past few parashot/portions and wanders into the almost comical escapades of Balak, the king of the Moabites, and Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not to mention a talking donkey!).
Why the unexpected shift?
I find meaning in this abrupt change in perspective away from Moses and the Israelites, nose to nose, and towards Moses and the Israelites as seen through the eyes of Balak, Balaam, and the Moabites. I believe this shift is made to remind us that there are functional and healthy aspects of the Israelite community. This shift changes the perspective to help us remember that despite the Israelites’ imperfections, there are a lot of positive aspects to their journey. While they have yet to reach the Promised Land, they really have made significant progress in their growth and development. In fact, they are closer than they ever have been to reaching their internal destination.
So also for us: while we’re immersed in our lives and our struggles, it’s natural to become blinded to the good, healthy things that we’re blessed with. Frequently, our attention is drawn to what’s wrong and what’s not working, and we have difficulty connecting and being grateful for what truly is right and working.
We see this dynamic in an incident that occurs towards the end of the parashah: Balaam, the prophet-for-hire, has been commissioned by Balak, to curse the Israelites. He’s on a rocky ledge, looking over the Israelite community, and he attempts to undermine them with words of cursing and chaos. However, as he gazes at the community below, only blessings and appreciation blossom in his heart. His words are actually memorialized in our morning liturgy, “Mah Tovu, Ohalecha Yaakov….” “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.” Balaam – in higher self, despite his worst inclinations – stands in the truth of what he sees and blesses the Israelites.
The journey forward is never done: the Israelites still have a great many challenges to overcome before they enter the Promised Land; we have a whole unknown future to navigate. How fortunate for us, then, that this change in perspective opens possibility for us – the possibility of a grander picture that we may not be in a position to see entirely – rather than just the story that we tell ourselves.
Many of us, along with the residents of Beit T’Shuvah, will continue to navigate the challenges of (re)enagement with the world. We’ll have the opportunity re-establish familiar routines and re-connect with people in ways that haven’t been possible for quite a while. The residue of confined and contained living is real, and we’re just beginning to figure out what further adaptations will be required. All the more essential, then, to keeping us grounded and committed to our priorities is our effort to recognize what’s worked and what we’ve been blessed with.
Chaplain Adam Siegel