(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, July 9, 2011.)
A story is told of three Jews who are comparing the holiness of their rabbis.
The first says, “My rabbi is so close to God, he trembles all the time.”
The second says, “My rabbi is so close to God that God trembles for fear of displeasing him.”
The third says, “Well, first my rabbi trembled. Then God trembled. Then my rabbi said to God, ‘Look, why should we both tremble?’”
OK, so maybe that’s not so funny. My wife Judy often reviews my sermons on Fridays, and she’s a tough critic. Some of you have told me that I should tell more jokes from the pulpit, that I am too serious. So I searched for a good joke to tell today, but none of them passed muster (i.e. the Wife-Laugh-O-Meter), and it occured to me that, there are no good jokes about the Torah that I have not already used. That’s right, I’m out of good jokes. Funny how Rabbi Stecker never seems to run out of material.
Another struggle that I have as a rabbi is the healthy tension regarding how I spend my time. This question is wrapped up in the larger question of what the role of a synagogue is. Is this building, this community center, primarily:
1. A place where people come to pray
2. A school for teaching children about Judaism
3. A learning institute where adults can discover their own path (perhaps not having found it as a child; refer back to number 2)
4. A place to celebrate benei mitzvah, weddings, and so forth
5. A community gathering place, where people come to meet others, to participate in social activities, etc.
Of course, it is a little of all of these, and many more as well. Given that Rabbi Stecker and Cantor Frieder and I only have a limited number of hours, how should we spend them?
And it's not just the clergy, of course. It's also how you, the active members of the laity, spend your time here as well. Participating with the Board of Trustees, the various arms and committees, the volunteer opportunities, helping those in need, and so forth. The tasks associated with community-building are effectively endless.
It is sometimes easy for the clergy, through various forms of work-based myopia, to miss the forest for the trees. So considering today's parashah, in particular, we might think about the message of Bil’am’s donkey. Or his apparent change of heart, turning curses into blessings. Or Balaq's foolishness.
And in doing so, we might miss the fact that THIS IS COMEDY! The aton, the she-donkey opens her mouth to speak! This was hysterical to our ancestors! And it might be to us as well, if only we did not take the Torah so seriously. Not only that, but Bil’am, who is a seer of some note, fails to see the angel by the side of the road, which even the dumb ass sees. The “seer” is blind, a witty trope that appears throughout Western literature.
Furthermore, Bil’am is supposedly so powerful that his mere pronouncements can change the course of history, but he is powerless in the face of his disobedient donkey! He needs a sword to kill it?! Ridiculous!
Bil’am is a comic figure; Balaq, who sent him, merely foolish, and the donkey comes off as the cleverest one of the bunch. Makes an ass out of all the others, you might say.
Not all of our commentators seem to be in on the joke; Pirqei Avot (5:8), from the first or second century CE, indicates that pi ha-aton, the “mouth of the ass,” was created on the sixth day of Creation just before Shabbat, grouping it with other very serious miracles.
Writing a millennium later, however, Rashi sees the irony. Here is his comment to Numbers 22:29 (לו יש חרב בידי; “If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”):
גנות גדולה היה לו דבר זה בעיני השרים,
זה הולך להרוג אומה שלמה בפיו, ולאתון זו צריך לכלי זיין
“It is a great disgrace in the eyes of the Moabite dignitaries [with whom he is traveling] - Bil’am is going to kill an entire nation with his words, but for a donkey he needs weapons of war?!”
The authors and editors of the Torah intended it to be eclectic and entertaining. It contains a wide variety of material: history, folktales, law, poetry, songs, love stories, erotic material, and, yes, humor.
And yet, we read the passage with Bil’am's talking donkey about a half-hour ago, and I did not hear a single person laugh.
OK, so it's in an ancient language which is nearly impossible to understand, even if you speak Hebrew. OK, so te'amei ha-miqra, the cantillation melody, is not conducive to comedic timing.
We simply do not expect to read the Torah in a way that is allows us to laugh. We take it awfully seriously. And frankly, that’s how we approach much of Jewish practice - anytime we are in the sanctuary, for example.
Yes, of course we need to be serious during tefillah. We read in Mishnah Berakhot (5:1):
אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש.
One must not stand up to pray without deep earnestness (literally, “heaviness of head”).
One cannot truly approach the Divine without being quite serious. Furthermore, says the Mishnah, some of our very pious ancestors used to sit in silence for one hour beforehand in order to prepare for prayer.
However, let me counter this with a quote from Voltaire:
"Dieu est un comédien, jouant devant un public trop effrayé pour rire."
“God is a comedian, playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.”
We are taught that holiness means to tremble before God, to feel that this is serious, and not to laugh. And yet, sometimes the higher truths can be told with levity, speaking the truth in jest, you might say. We need not fear laughter and joy in the pursuit of holiness.
That is one of the primary lessons to be gleaned from Parashat Balaq: The Torah uses comedy to relay a very serious message. As Marc Zvi Brettler put it in his Jewish Study Bible:
“At times amusing, and somewhat mocking of the non-Israelite prophet [i.e. Bil’am], the message of this pericope is serious: The intent of the Lord reigns supreme and cannot be superseded. Even the powers of a well-known non-Israelite prophet are ultimately controlled by God.”
And hence the need to think about this in the context of this particular community. Rabbi Stecker, it’s true, is funny - far funnier than I am, as we have already established. But it’s not just us, the clergy. It’s all of us. We are the ones who make this place welcoming, a synagogue where all will want to gather and feel at home, where joy and levity are an integral part of the synagogue experience.
Services should be respectful, but not dour; we can find that sweet spot that incorporates levity and joy and yet still play by the rules.
To that end, I would like to offer a few suggestions for making this sanctuary and the rest of this building more welcoming to all:
Smile and greet people who you don’t know.
If somebody looks lost, find a gentle way to help him/her out.
If others are talking and it’s making it difficult for you to find your prayer space, please find a playful way to quiet them.
If a visitor is in “your” seat, use it as an opportunity to give a friendly smile and graciously sit somewhere else.
If somebody is speaking on a cell phone in the building on Shabbat or holidays, or texting, or taking photos, find a cheerful way to inform them that we discourage that. (Of course, if they’re reading my blog, let ‘em continue. Talmud Torah keneged kulam.)
Yes, we can have intellectual rigor and dignified worship and decorum. But let’s face it, folks: this community is about families! It’s about bringing people together for the sake of raising our stake in holiness. All of the things that we do, all of the ways that the clergy and everybody else devote their time, they contribute to this bottom line. And we need to go about this in an easygoing manner to do so effectively.
And yes, that’s just one more button that we have to hit as a community, one more task on an ever-growing stack - it’s not just the rabbi who can be light-hearted up here on the bimah; it’s all the rest of us as well. As we go about doing the work of building community in the pursuit of holiness, we have to do it with a smile.
Good spirits lead to a more serious understanding of what it is that we do as Jews, how we sanctify time. The donkey speaks the truth, and we only need to tremble so much.