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Parshat Chukat/Balak: Growth through words

Updated: Jul 30

Last week and this weeks parsha share many parallel themes.

As a book whose theme is the growth of the nation it is natural that language, words, the pedagogy of speech development will act as a central motif. Miriam speaking badly of Moshe, the people’s complaints, the spies and their ‘evil speech’ about the land, Moshe hitting instead of speaking to the rock, Bilaam’s curse that turns into a blessing. Language is context bound, subject to the conditions, norms and idiosyncratic vernacular of its origins. At the same time language allows us to transform our subjective world into universal categories understood by others. It is the space between the subjective and the objective; the path though which humans traverse the boundaries of self and other and the way we mature and learn to navigate all those spaces and areas. In other words, a careful use of language will often be the hallmark of maturity.

In last week Parsha, Chukat, we meet the second generation. They too, like their predecessors, complain asking for water. Moshe is told to speak to the rock rather than striking it, as he has done before with the previous generation. Ostensibly this small mistake results in his being unable to enter the land. To understand this episode requires us to notice a subtle yet significant difference between the complaints of the two generations. The first generation complain that they would be better off in Egypt, this generation complain “לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת” – This is not a place of growth, figs grapes and pomegranates , and there is no water. What the people are saying is not ‘why are we not going back to Egypt?”, but rather why are we not going TOWARDS Eretz Yisrael – the place you promised that has all these fruits. The people are no longer nursing illusions of a past life and instead anticipating the responsibility of building a new one. They are ready to enter the land. Moshe hears only complaints, and hence follows precedent – he strikes – a modality that is understood by slaves. But As Rabbi Sacks explains, free people need to be persuaded, they need speech rather than force.

The key to the entire narrative comes to a climax in chapter 21 verse 17. There the people sing a song – the song of the well. This is their response to the episode at the rock. It is their way of showing that they understand that they are different to their parents’ generation. Their song is not ‘led’ by Moshe like at the Red sea, in fact Moshe is not mentioned at all. It is a song that is sung at the initiative of the people and it is a song about the well and the ‘interpreters’ of their generation. The well of course, unlike the open sea, represents the multi-dimensional, the hidden, the silence. It is not ‘open’ thus mandates a process and engenders faith, that the water will be found. The song about the well therefore is the people embarking on the next stage of their journey towards maturity. Employing the words and language they have finally learnt to value, they elevate it to a new level. Utilising song, a creative process of expressing the depth of ones subjective experience, and the gratitude for the unspeakable, they affirm that they are ready for the next stage. A stage in which God will become more ‘silent’, but not more absent, where he will hand the baton of creativity, responsibility and autonomy over to the nation and its leaders.

In this week Parsha - Balak, we once again we see a parallel between the first and second generation. In many instances the second generation 'relive' the experiences of the first generation. We witness an uncanny parallel both linguistically and thematically between the two enemies of Israel, Balak and Pharoah. Both describe the Jewish people in the same way (see the narrative shemot 1:9/12 Bamidbar 22:3 Yehoshua 13:22). Both employ some kind of magician/sorcerers to fight against them and both believe they can beat their God. Both of course fail. The difference between them however is that whilst Pharoah used magicians who fight employing 'signs' and 'miracles', Balak hires a sorcerer who will utilise instead the power of speech. In both instances God uses the enemies own method to beat them, in Egypt through signs and wonders and here through the subtlety of speech.

Why the differences? Because each generation mandated a different approach. Whilst the first generation were passive bystanders, slaves, children that needed to be convinced and persuaded through wonders, the second generation have grown up. They no longer require open miracles, they understand the nuance of language and speech, the power of blessing and curses. They are a generation whose strength lies in the natural abilities of man and not necessarily the supernatural actions of God. And yet man can become overwhelmed with his own success and grandeur and so God reminds them that whilst they will fight their enemies through the sword and build a nation through the sweat of their brow, ultimate God is the one who dictates their destiny, so use your strength to create blessing and good and not corruption and evil.

Bilaam reminds us that through ‘reframing’ we can change our reality. If we are able to see the blessing rather than the curse, the land of milk and honey ,rather than the land the consumes its inhabitants, and to see God in his silence rather than the emptiness of the sky, only then, are we mature enough to enter the promised land.

Shabbat Shalom

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