July 3, 2020
In my office there is a photograph of a donkey that was given to me by Sarah Rubin. “A donkey?” you might be thinking, “why a donkey?” This framed picture was given to me because she recalled a discussion that we had about Torah parshiot and I mentioned that my favorite was Balak. I mean what’s not to like about parashat Balak? There is a talking donkey, an angel with a fiery sword, and intended curses are turned into blessings.
But really, my love of parashat Balak goes back to the summer of 1983 or 84, my first summer at camp. On Shabbat mornings breakfast was optional, but Torah study was not. An hour or so before Shabbat morning services, we would gather on the porch of our corresponding boy’s cabin and learn about the parashah of the week; and one cabin would be assigned to act out the parashah for the camp at services. I don’t know what week during camp it was, but my cabin was assigned Balak. I remember learning about Balak and how he wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam told Balak that he could only do what God allowed him to do, and of course he would curse the Israelites. From there, to the mind of a 9 or 10 yr. old, it gets a little crazy. I remember one of us being the donkey, another being Balaam sitting on the donkey, and yet another as the scary, fiery sword-wielding angel. I’m not sure I remember much beyond that, but since that summer, I have looked forward to reading Balak each year.
Several years ago, I was working on a program for camp that asked the question, “what’s your torah?” What is the “torah” that speaks to your heart, that inspires you, that moves you, that reminds you of what you love about Judaism or being Jewish?
For me, Parashat Balak, is my torah. Whether it was my first taste of Torah or not, it is the one I remember as being first. It is the first torah that touched me, that left an impression. Over the years, I have studied this parashah and it’s words, it’s meaning have come to life in new and different ways but that first memory of this parashah of sitting on that porch with my camp friends and acting out the parashah during Shabbat services, is forever sealed in my heart. I also recognize that the place, where I first learned this Torah, camp, enabled me to connect to torah and Judaism in ways I never had before. Camp fostered my Jewish identity and shaped who I am today.
Since that Shabbat, so long ago, I have studied and grappled with lots of torah. There are many, many verses and sections of the Torah that speak to me or have shaped my life and my thinking in so many ways. What I appreciate about the way we Jews study torah is the realization that each year when we come to the same words we read the year before, we recognize that the words aren’t quite the same because we aren’t the same. During that previous year, we changed, we grew, we experienced the world in new and different ways and therefore each year when we come to a parashah, we do so with new eyes, which perhaps help to bring new understanding and insights. And of course, we’re taught to study torah in chevruta, in a pair or a group, so as to learn torah not through one set of eyes but through multiple, challenging and enlightening one another in our understandings and thoughts recognizing that there is not one view or interpretation of torah.
So, I ask you, “what’s your torah?” This Shabbat, I challenge you to consider this question. What is the “torah” that speaks to your heart, that inspires you, that moves you, that reminds you of what you love about Judaism or being Jewish? It does not have to be an entire parashah; it could simply be a verse that inspires and moves you to be and do in this world.
This Shabbat I think back to that summer, back to that taste of Torah and realize the gift I received that morning – “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael – How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” – this blessing of Balaam’s was my gift of Torah, the moment that Torah made an imprint on my soul.
May Balaam’s blessing inspire us to see the beauty and power of torah in our lives. Torah has the power to inspire, to challenge, to uplift, to motivate – if we but open ourselves up to its words!
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא
It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it.
Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg
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