Delivered at the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale on July 23, 2016
What are you proud of? What is it that you have done – either recently or in the past that makes you proud? Think about one thing – whether it is an achievement at work or something in your personal life – that makes you proud. A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a rabbinic learning program at JTS, and we began a session with Professor Eliezer Diamond, a teacher of Talmud, like we began every session – by saying our names. When we had our go-around with Prof. Diamond, he asked us to include one thing that we are proud of in our lives. When it was his turn, he stated in a gentle and humble way that he was proud of his bio that a JTS staff member had finished reading as part of the session introduction. Contrast this to another session that we had prior, when the instructor in a playful manner did not let the staff member complete the introduction of the teacher nor get through the bio.
It can be difficult and uncomfortable to listen to our own accomplishments and be proud of them. If we asked this question more often, as Professor Diamond suggested, it would be easier to answer and really own our accomplishments. It can be powerful and transformational to be proud of what you have done. There is some tension in owning what we have done – that which we are proud of – and not allowing that to morph out of control.
Parashat Balak begins with an introduction that I find a little strange because it first gives us Balak’s name and lineage (“Balak is the son of Zippor”) in the opening verse and only mentions that he is the King of Moab a couple of verses later. It is like going around the room and saying our names but forgetting something that is pretty important only to try and squeeze it in later. What is it that leads to this purposeful but seeming redundancy in the narrative where Balak’s name is mentioned in the first verse and again in the fourth verse where we are also informed that Balak was king of Moab? The verse adds two words, בעת ההיא , on which many commentators, including Rashi, point out that Balak was at first a Midianite prince who was appointed to be an interim king after Sichon was defeated by the Israelites. According to another understanding, Balak was chosen because the Israelite nation camped so physically close to Moab that the Moabites felt they needed to appoint a leader with military prowess.
There is one more commentary that is for me deeply important because it examines what I see as some reluctance on Balak’s part to accept his role as King and to be proud of who he is. Rabbeinu Bachya sees this introduction of Balak and the words בעת ההיא as a reflection of Balak’s state of mind. Bachya suggests that Balak felt a little insecure given what happened to his predecessors. While we know that Balak was the king, Balak did not at first see himself as a king. Maybe he thought of himself as the presumptive nominee and did not realize the position he was in.
I think the beginning of the parasha is a liminal moment for Balak, who absorbed what happened to the kings before him so that he could step in and fill the role. There’s something that I think happens in those interim moments – the life space between verse two and verse four – that was consequential to Balak and is something we all deal with. One way I approach these two words and the overall beginning of the parasha is the way one might see a new job. Sometimes when you begin a new job there is a grace period during which time you may be permitted some leeway and empowered to make decisions that can lay the foundation for what you want to accomplish later. Some people refer to this as when you don’t know what you don’t know. I know I felt this way for a portion of this past year, my first year at Hillel at City College. The period of time when you are crossing a threshold can be fraught with decision after decision and concurrently filled with moments to absorb new information so that, in my case, I could be supportive to the student leaders.
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch – a teacher and counselor in California – writes in her new book Thresholds, “Not all decisions are equal. Liminal moments are different from the other decisions of our lives. We know that our lives are constantly in flux and we need to make a ton of decisions daily to survive. But not all decisions are equal.” Bachya’s interpretation portrays Balak in a “liminal moment” where he is upon the threshold of having been a Midianite prince to becoming Melech Moab. Many of us go from threshold to threshold looking for a way to balance life’s moving pieces. The way we choose to own our space, being proud of our accomplishments, and take the next step forward ripples what happens next and can have a positively affect the outcome.
I think this past week and the week ahead in presidential politics is filled with these moments. With one presidential nominee affirmed by his party and, it would seem the other party’s nominee to be confirmed during the coming week, two people will step through major thresholds, moving from being candidates vying for the nomination to being the party nominees. They will step into a space even larger than before and, I hope, find ways to cast blessings upon their parties, the people they lead, and quite possibly one another. Rabbi Hirsch writes about “thriving through life’s transitions [in order] to live fearlessly and regret-free.” This begins with knowing ourselves and being proud of who we are as well as seeing our leaders owning who they are and who they are not.
As for me, what am I proud of? I am proud of my work-life balance and trying to remain steady with all of the moving pieces. And, finishing this sermon!
 Spain, Mid 13th Century
As Jacob journeys toward home he learns that Esau is moving in his direction with 400 men. We are told that Jacob sends gifts, including fleets of animals, to his brother to assuage his anger. Unsure about what is about to happen, one might say that Jacob gets his affairs in order. He arranges his family, wives and children and finally presents himself to Esau, bowing to the ground seven times.
Esau’s response is a bit of a surprise. The Torah tells us, “Looking about, Esau saw the women and the children” and remarked, “Who are these with you?” (Genesis 33:5). Esau has become an uncle and brother-in-law many times over, and yet Jacob’s family and newfound wealth astonish him. “And what do you mean by all this company which I have met?” Esau asked Jacob. (Genesis 33:8)
They tried to prevail upon one another with gifts and company, and Jacob and Esau must instead acknowledge a new reality:
“Yesh li rav,” Esau says. “I have enough. Let what you have remain yours.”
“Yesh li kol,” Jacob says. “I have plenty. Please accept.”
There is something magical about this declaration, “Yesh li kol.” I have enough. Twenty years earlier, a perceived scarcity was the source of great fear and anger, dividing the family. Twenty years later, surrounded by family and livestock, both brothers proclaim, “I have what I need” and embrace. Whereas they once competed for parental love and attention and could not stand securely on their own merit, now they have possessions and cannot seem to give it away fast enough. Their words not only transform their dynamic, but they also teach a lesson about gratitude and self-respect.
The Sefat Emet (Poland, 19th Century) translated “kol” as ‘all’ and wrote, “But how can any person say ‘all’? Surely there were some things that he did not have! But for the one who is attached to the upper root, whatever he has is ‘all.’ ”
What he means, I think, is that it makes no difference whether we have more or less. Rather, we need to appreciate that which we have instead of seeing the appreciated value. It is about believing that the sum total of blessings in our life is “all” or “enough” instead of “part” or “almost.” And then, just like Esau and Jacob, it is about declaring it aloud and acknowledging a new reality.
In Judaism, each day begins at sundown of the previous day. Shabbat, being no different, begins Friday evening. I love those moments - as rushed as they may be or as serene as we strive to make them - that escort us into Shabbat. We begin Shabbat by lighting candles (2 in our home) and by doing so we add a measure of spirit that I believe comes from God and those around us. I hope these words help you as they have helped me.