Neutralizing the Sparks
Parashat Chukat - Balak 5780 Tucked into our tefillot every day of the year - weekdays, Shabbat and holidays – is Tehillim 30, Mizmor Shir Chanukat Habayit. This prayer includes an expression that animates a colorful Talmudic discourse about the nature of anger, the ‘wrath of G-d’ to be precise.
כִּ֤י רֶ֨גַע ׀ בְּאַפּוֹ֮ חַיִּ֪ים בִּרְצ֫וֹנ֥ו...
For Hashem’s ‘anger’ is but a rega (moment), but life is granted at Hashem's will...
Based on this statement, the Gemara (Berachot 7a) concludes that Hashem’s attribute of ‘anger’ is more pronounced for the duration of precisely one rega each day.
What’s a rega, asks the Gemara?
אֶחָד מֵחֲמֵשֶׁת רִבּוֹא וּשְׁמוֹנַת אֲלָפִים וּשְׁמֹנֶה מֵאוֹת וּשְׁמֹנִים וּשְׁמֹנָה בְּשָׁעָה, וְזוֹ הִיא רֶגַע. וְאֵין כָּל בְּרִיָּה יְכוֹלָה לְכַוֵּין אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה, חוּץ מִבִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע...
One fifty-eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eighth of an hour, that is a rega. [Furthermore,] no creature can precisely determine that rega except for Balaam the wicked... (The Gemara offers an alternative opinion that a rega lasts as long as it takes a person to say “Rega!”) Either way, a rega is quite brief, and Bilaam was a master of exploiting moments of anger. I suspect that Bilaam’s services would be in great demand these days. Rage, tension, anger and a slew of other intense emotions have been running high as of late. One could run a solid business exploiting moments of anger. It doesn’t even require a master like Bilaam, where human outrage is concerned. Our tradition bids us be especially careful of this dangerous cocktail as we enter the season of Tammuz, Av and Elul. The question we face now, along with all people who value decency, morality, and lawfulness in society: Is it possible to acknowledge injustice and suffering for a productive social purpose, without merely fanning the flames of anger. If Bilaam is the Emissary of Anger, it may be instructive to examine the way in which he is neutralized. Essentially, Hashem forces him to speak words of beracha. I do not wish to imply that simply speaking words of blessing is an appropriate response to righteous anger. The contents of Bilaam’s beracha are essential. Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob. Rashi implicitly asks why Bilaam is so smitten with the Jewish tents? The answer is contained in a Talmudic discussion (Bava Batra 60a) about urban design. The Mishna teaches that homes in common courtyards constructed opposite other homes must have opposite apertures misaligned. Rabbi Yochanan derives this from our parsha:
דאמר קרא :וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו מה ראה ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה:
Scripture states: And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe. What did he see? He saw that their openings were not lined up directly opposite each other. He said, ‘These people are fit to have the Divine Presence rest upon them.’
Rashbam clarifies succinctly that it’s all a matter of tzniyut, basic modesty. Understood in this context, Bilaam’s beracha - Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov – is about a basic level of tzniyut evident in the arrangement of the Jewish encampment. I would suggest further that this tzniyut is more than merely abstaining from peeking into the physical space of others. Rather, tzniyut is a proactive stance, an acknowledgment of human dignity. We recognize that we all have vulnerabilities and we need our personal space for growth, development, fragility and making mistakes. When Bilaam seeks to ignite the sparks of anger, Hashem neutralizes him by opening his supposedly “open eyes” to a community that is, literally, grounded in human dignity and common decency. This was the common space that the Shechinah deigned to dwell in. Of note, this was also a space friendly to geirim and, therefore, a place where even Bilaam and Balak could theoretically reside, if only their hearts were so inclined.
This Sunday morning, G-d willing, Darchei Noam will participate in the creation of two new spaces. We are partnering with the Northwest Islamic Community Center of Plymouth to create a pair of simple gardens, one in front of each building. The symbolic value of these gardens is far greater than their physical footprints. They represent the possibility of Muslims and Jews working together to build something small and beautiful. I know of no such other initiative in the Twin Cities and have yet to hear of another Orthodox shul partnering in such a way. None of the volunteers, Jewish or Muslim, are naïve to our differences and troubled history. None of us imagines this will solve real world problems, or even necessarily lead to a positive sustained relationship (although that would be lovely.) However, this brief encounter with ‘the other’ will make its mark on participants and passersby. They will see the sign, a testament to what is possible when we recognize one another’s humanity. Perhaps when some future spark of anger is primed to ignite, modest efforts like these will stay the flames and bring us back to the camp of decency. Finally, if we are so engaged in these efforts with our Muslim neighbors, all the more so may we find the strength in Tammuz to keep our own tents in order! May our inreach and outreach merit the presence of the Shechinah and light a path towards the New Year ahead.