Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eyes to See

The Talmud, when it reviews the writers of the works of the Holy Scriptures tells us that Moshe wrote three books, the five books of the Torah, of course, the Book of Job, and the book of Bilaam. Rashi there explains the need for the Gemara to tell us that Moshe wrote the book of Bilaam. Surely its part of the Torah, of course Moshe wrote it. He explains that since the story of Bilaam, that which is the parsha of this week, Balak, is not in its essence a story of the Children of Israel, nor does it include laws relevant for us, we might think Moshe would have no business or reason to write it. The Talmud therefore tells us that indeed while Bilaam's story is one that happens in the background, and one that Moshe did not participate in, nonetheless he is the one who wrote it.

The presence in the Torah of this weeks Parsha is puzzling and for the very reasons Rashi felt the Talmud needed to tell us it was written by Moshe.It seems so uncharacteristic of the text.Its not really our story. But I want to raise with you a follow-up question and not about the context of the story but about the content.How is it that Bilaam when he goes to curse the Nation of Israel is unable to find a flaw. How is it that each time he aspires to rain down a curse he is overwhelmed with the People's goodness.
This is the Israelites we are talking about, a nation whose sins fill the book of Bamidbar, the current book we are reading, and much of the Torah in its entirety.
These are the people who, shortly after Bilaam gives up on his efforts,at the end of the reading, engage in lascivious behavior with Moabite women, in concert with idolatry, in a calamity that brought about the death of 25,000.

How is it that Bilaam can only find the good in this People? What does he see that we are missing? The story in the context of the Book of Bamidbar seems incongruous.

I think to comprehend what is going on here we need to make a critical distinction.
There are two words in the English language that seem synonomous but in fact are not. The words are 'guilt' and 'shame'. On the surface to say "I feel guilty" after doing something wrong seems the same as saying "I feel ashamed of doing something wrong". Maybe shame is a stronger word, but its essentially appears just a stronger expression of the same feeling. But in fact guilt and shame are different in kind not in degree. When I feel guilty I feel I have done something bad. When I feel shame I feel I am bad. The difference between the two sentiments is enormous.
In feeling guilt I acknowledge wrong-doing but retain my inner sense that I am a good person. That makes change possible. I am good and can correct my behavior.
When I feel shame I feel I am inadequate. The problem is not with what I have done but with who I am. I feel flawed of my essence. In the feeling of shame we are stuck . We could change behavior, especially if we believe we are made of good.
We cannot change our essence. In shame we are left to despair and resignation.

The difference between people who make ammends for wrongful behavior and who improve in life and those who do not may not be so much about their respective wills or motivations. The difference may boil down to how they view themselves, as either guilty or shame-full. People who feel themselves good will feel guilty and improve.
People who feel themselves bad will see their plight as hopeless and while feeling shame it will not move them to change or improve, on the contrary, it will cause them to stagnate.

In this backdrop we can perhaps understand the story of Bilaam. True the Israelites were guilty of serious sins. The Torah recounts story after story, both before the episode of Bilaam and after, of our waywardness. Bilaam knew that. Perhaps thats why he felt a curse could be placed on us. What he saw, to his chagrin, was that what we did as a people, our sinfulness, no matter how grave, did not reflect who we were. It had no bearing on our essence.
Israel, the people, were without blemish. Israel, the people, were good through and through. The transgressions reflected poor judgement, not poor character.

The Torah, in its wisdom, needs to give us this story. With all we read of our shortcomings in the recent readings, and week after week, we are liable to believe we are unredeemable, that we are damaged goods and despair of improvement. There is a danger we would see the problem is not with what we did but with who we are. Guilt would become shame and we would be doomed to mediocrity. It is for this reason the Torah gives us the perspective of Bilaam. His eyes on us tell us that what we did is no reflection of who we are. Bilaam provides us with the ultimate blessing. Through him we are given the gift of belief in ourselves despite our litany of wrongs. In that change becomes possible. We can grow and improve...and we do!

The lesson Bilaam provides us with is as vital to our lives as to those of our ancestors. We each need to believe in our intrinsic goodness to have any chance to grow and become. Guilt, yes, shame, never!. Neither for us nor for our children. Nor should we let anyone else place shameful messages on us or our children. There is no room for shaming messages...not even from those who say they love us. Shame kills our possibilities. It keeps men and women stuck in bad marriages. It keeps people from advancing in their careers. It keeps us from realizing our potential in relationship to Hashem. Shame is a poison that keeps us from our sh'laimut waiting to be realized.

We are good! Would that we would see ourselves as Bilaam saw us. We don't need to feel more guilty. We need to feel less shame!

Shabbat Shalom

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