July 3, 2020
This week’s d’var Torah on Chukat-Balak.
One day, a rabbi decided to meet a local shop owner for a walk around the neighborhood. The rabbi was hoping that she might convince the shop owner to contribute to the synagogue and other worthy causes. After a bit of small talk, the rabbi made her pitch. The shop owner listened politely, then shook her head. “You know, Rabbi,” the shop owner said solemnly. “There is so much hatred in the world, so much corruption, so much dishonesty, so much violence. It seems that, if our teachings and traditions were really worth something, we wouldn’t see so much of that in the world.”
The rabbi nodded thoughtfully, then asked. “What is it that you sell in your shop?”
“I make soap,” the shop owner said proudly. “Shampoos and body washes. Those kinds of things.”
Just then, a gaggle of children scrambled by. They had clearly just come from playing Kehillah soccer, and they were covered, from head to toe, in a thick layer of mud. It was smeared on their faces, in their hair, and under their fingernails. Some of them even had it caked in their eyebrows.
The rabbi shook her head. “With all the soap and shampoo and body wash we have in the world,” she said. “How is it that these children are so filthy? You’d think that if soap were really worth something, we wouldn’t see so much filth in the world.”
(And what do you think the shop owner said?)
Of course! “Soap only works when you use it regularly!”
(And how do you think the rabbi responded?)
“It’s the same with our teachings and traditions. They only work when we use them regularly!”
I thought of this story yesterday as I was listening to a TED talk by Jay Smooth, a radio host and commentator on politics, culture, and race. In his talk “How I learned to stop worrying and love discussing race,” he states that our biggest problem is that we look at combatting racism, prejudice, and implicit bias as a one-time, all-or-nothing proposition. We equate it to having our tonsils removed, rather than to something requiring more regular maintenance, like bathing or brushing our teeth. We read the books, marched in the protests, donated to the causes, built relationships with people of color. Check. We’re done. Prejudice removed. We are officially “not racist.”
The problem with this is that, when we inevitably do engage in behavior that is racist, or display implicit bias, and someone points that out, we can get really offended. It is as if that calling out is an assault on our character, rather than an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and further develop our antiracism.
Similarly, in our own community’s “Dissecting the Q” conversation this week, we talked about words that have been used, and misused, in the LGBTQ+ community. We would love for there to be a clear chart that says, use this word, not that word, for all people in these categories, always and forever. But the big takeaway from that conversation was that every person or situation we encounter might require us to use different language. It doesn’t mean we’re forever stamped as homophobic if we use the wrong word. It means we need to be willing to listen, ask questions, and be prepared to apologize and adjust in the moment.
“In general,” Smooth says, “I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed immutable characteristic and shift towards seeing being good as a practice. And it is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections.”
Being a good person, he continues, has to be like being a clean person. It’s something we have to maintain and work on every day. One can’t say, “I’m a clean person, therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth.” Or, “I can’t possibly have something stuck in my teeth. I’m a clean person!” One needs to use the soap, or the toothbrush, multiple times every day in order to stay clean. Conversely, one can be a generally clean person and still, occasionally, have something stuck in our teeth that needs to be removed.
Which brings us to this week’s double Torah portion: Chukat-Balak. Chukat is about our leader Moses being punished for angrily striking a rock, and Balak is about a sorcerer who blesses the Israelites in spite of being hired to curse them. I’ve always thought it was a bummer that these two Torah portions get smushed together in the weekly schedule, as they are some of the more narratively interesting portions in Numbers and it would be nice to spread them out over the summer.
But looking at them together, in the context of this week’s conversations, I noticed a correlation. In one portion, we have a traditionally “good” person, Moses, doing something bad and facing the consequences (and this isn’t the only time that happens). And in the other, we have a traditionally “bad” person, Balaam the sorcerer, doing something good for a change. Perhaps the putting those stories next to each other is meant to remind us that no one is all good, or all bad, all the time. Being good and doing good is not a fixed state, but a product of the choices we make, many times throughout each day.
Sometimes our desire to put ourselves permanently in the “good” category is exactly what gets in our way. If we want to always see ourselves as “good,” we might not be as open to hearing how we might do better. We might get defensive, shut down and give up, when we are called out for using the wrong word, or revealing the biases we may not realize we have, or for not acknowledging our privilege.
And if we continue to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, we might go as far as to put ourselves permanently in the “bad” category when we fail. It is hard to feel like we are doing enough to combat ignorance and prejudice in these times. And if we can’t ever do enough, this all-or-nothing logic concludes, why do anything at all?
So perhaps, rather than using the words “good” OR “bad” when it comes to our grasp of race, or gender, or sexuality, we might instead approach this work with the words “humility” AND “compassion”
Humility is the ability to admit that we are still learning, the willingness to grow and change, and, most importantly, the ability to hear that we have made a mistake, apologize, and strive to do better.
It is said that a student approached Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and asked, “Rebbe, who is a good Jew?” and the rebbe replied, “anyone who wants to be a good Jew?” “But rebbe,” the student persisted, “who wouldn’t want to be a good Jew?” “That’s easy,” said the rebbe. “Someone who thinks they are a good Jew already” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, 166).
This can also be true of being antiracist, or feminist, or being an LGBTQ+ ally. It can also be said of being an open and welcoming community, or a great nation. We become these things by having the humility to admit that these are a set of constantly-evolving goals, not our permanent, unchanging status. And we fail to become these things when we let our desire to hold onto that status interfere with our practice.
When we, or those around us, do fall short of these aspirations, we need to show compassion. Because it is only by acknowledging that everyone is still learning that we can stop feeling so hopeless and helpless, so we can roll up our sleeves, wash our hands, and keep doing the work.
Rabbi Shai Held writes, “Perhaps the Torah wants us to know that one can be inspired, and can even be a prophet, without necessarily being a blameless saint. … the Torah wants us to internalize the reality that God can make use even of people who are deeply flawed to achieve significant and holy ends…. It is the reality that makes covenant possible, since we are all fragile, broken, and sometimes corrupt. God uses (only!) imperfect people to achieve God’s ends in the world. … Confronted with the reality of our struggles and limitations, many of us have been tempted to decide that we are worthless and cannot possibly do anything of value in the world. … But the Torah will have none of it. If God chooses to bless through Balaam, then God can choose to bless through us as well. We are forbidden to write ourselves off, just as we are forbidden to write off others. I can be deeply flawed and still be called to serve. If God could not make use of limited people, God would have no one to make use of at all” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, 161-2).