Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Balak 5783: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Obtained under creative commons license

My havruta/study partner, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, MA, needed to hold our weekly zoom session unusually early this week—6:45 a.m. for me in Chicago. She was going to perform a conversion later that  morning during the time when we normally meet. As she told me about this, Claudia observed that, like many other rabbis, she’s facilitating a record number of conversions these days—people from various walks of life and backgrounds who, especially in the wake of the pandemic, have found their spiritual home and community in Judaism.

Claudia and I reflected on the significance of what seems like an increase in the number of folks who want to be part of the Jewish people—not only, or even primarily, for familial reasons (e.g. they’re marrying someone Jewish), but as a response to their own spiritual seeking. I have been involved in a handful of conversions to Judaism myself, and both Claudia and I commented on how much we admire the gerei tzedek (converts) we’ve worked with. Like Claudia’s, my religious life today doesn’t look all that different from what I grew up with—so it’s amazing to both of us to imagine the enormous change and commitment of someone who takes on a new community, a new name, a new identity, much less one that, historically, has frequently brought with it a great deal of suffering.

And this is to say nothing of the many people who are other kinds of fellow-travelers with Jews and Jewish communities today—family members and friends and seekers who have not, perhaps, chosen to go through a formal ritual process of conversion but who are meaningfully, often deeply, attached and committed to the teachings and practices of Judaism. As in just about every other area of our lives, we are living today in a moment of open-source Judaism, when Torah and community are available and accessible in an unprecedentedly open way.

I have written before about the thought experiment I sometimes engage in: If I were to rent a billboard on a major expressway to promote Jewish life, what would it say? There are, in fact, campaigns currently doing just this, and their messages tend to focus on fighting antisemitism—either with earnest statements against hate or with snarky comments seemingly designed to shock. While I wish only the best for the folks behind these campaigns, I would try something different. If, in fact, we’re attracting more people to Judaism and Jewish life than we have in a very long time, then it might be time to put those stories on billboards: stories of people who have experienced the spiritual depth of Jewish life and chosen to join the Jewish people because of it. What an amazing way to share light—not only with the world, but also with other Jews! How affirming, how inspiring, how uplifting. (This was more or less the thrust behind the commercial we at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality created for an NFL game last year.)

The audience for our billboard storytelling isn’t only those beyond the Jewish people; the stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them affect the narrators just as much, if not more. We saw that in the story of the spies just a couple of weeks ago, when they made the amazing statement, “We appeared as grasshoppers to ourselves—and so we must have looked in their eyes too” (Num. 13:33). The spies had no evidence of how they appeared to the people of the land, but, in one of the earliest recorded acts of projection in human history, they came to believe in their own smallness—and brought the rest of the people along with them—through their storytelling.

Parashat Balak marks something of the apotheosis of this psychological journey outward. For the first and only time in the Torah, the Israelites aren’t the main characters of the story. The narration brings us into the land of Moab, the anxieties of Balak the king, and the intimate dialogues between Balaam and the Divine. Yet this is a story that we Jews read about ourselves, as though the Torah is saying to us, “Do you really want to know how you’re seen? Let me show you.” And it turns out the Israelites aren’t seen as grasshoppers at all, but as strong and mighty. More than that, despite Balaam’s many attempts to curse the people, he ultimately can’t do it—because when he actually communes with the Holy One and connects with the deepest truth, he sees not liabilities to curse but assets to bless: “How can I damn whom God has not damned/How doom when YHVH has not doomed?” (23:8) and, later,

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!

Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by YHVH,
Like cedars beside the water;

Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water. (24:5-7)

There is, of course, violence with non-Israelites that surrounds all of this. Balak is scared of the Israelites because of their successful campaign against the Amorites. Balaam’s blessings go on to talk about the various ways the Israelites will destroy their enemies, crush their bones, and drink their blood. And the end of the parasha brings us the story of Pinchas, who kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in broad daylight—and receives God’s blessing for it.

I don’t think we should shy away from the violence lurking in these stories. As we painfully continue to learn, violence against Jews is real and ongoing—and Jews are just as capable as anyone else of perpetrating acts of violence against those we deem threats or enemies. But even, or perhaps especially, against this backdrop, I think the more central message here is that the stories we tell ourselves and share with others matter profoundly—and today, the stories we tell ourselves are, inevitably, stories we share with others. Those stories can be ones of fear and anxiety or ones of strength and expansiveness. They can be stories that highlight the distinctions and boundaries between “us” and “them,” or they can be stories that draw upon the deeper truths of our shared humanity and interconnection.

My Hillel rabbi in college, Jim Ponet, once offered me one of the best definitions of home I’ve ever heard: Home is where you can welcome other people. It takes great strength to feel and act as if we are at home. Yet, in my mind, that is precisely the point of Jewish spiritual practice: to enable us to be at home in our bodies, our communities, our lives—to be at home in the universe. When we genuinely experience that at-homeness—perhaps only when we experience it—then we can welcome others and help them be at home too. That, I think, should underlie the stories we tell ourselves and that we share with the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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