D'var Torah, Balak 5780/Sat 4th July 2020

by Leah Jordan

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

Shabbat Shalom.

Is it odd that, at the same time we are together here, praying and singing on this Shabbat, some pubs have been open since 6AM this morning, as some people celebrate ‘Super Saturday’?

How does the apocryphal Chinese curse go? ‘May you live in interesting times.’

Perhaps there is something Jewish about this slight sense of disjointure — that we are singing songs of praise while others are down at the pub

In the Talmud, we’re told that two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat from the synagogue to their home, one good angel and one evil angel. And when we reach our home and find (hopefully!) that we have a challah, or kiddush wine, or a meal, or are in some way marking Shabbat with loved ones, the good angel says: “May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.” And the evil angel answers against his will, “Amen.” And if our home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the evil angel says: “May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,” and the good angel answers against his will: “Amen.”

I don’t know what the angels make of our Zoom services, but I can’t help but think that at least the good angel over each of our shoulders is charmed by our sincere desire, even in times when it’s very hard to gather, to be together and to honour Shabbat. (And to perhaps put off going down to the pub until at least midday!)

Since lockdown began in March, I have noticed that Shabbat dinner at our flat has become increasingly feast-like. Where before, I have to admit, my partner and I and our two flatmates relied heavily on the brilliant cooking of my mother-in-law, now that she is Zooming in to our Shabbat meals, from a COV-ID-safe distance, it falls to us to impress our ministering angels — and when so much of the week has looked the same– work or play, there’s no office, no tube, no pub — Shabbat as the day of rest, the ‘special’ day, has taken on extra significance. 

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Marking time — and how we mark it — is an especial skill of the Jewish people. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that “Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year,” that Shabbats “are our great cathedrals.”

I’m sure some of us are sitting here, thinking — Oh no, the evil angel would only see me failing in my Jewish ritual duties! Same here. I bring this up not to shame us (the Talmud also acknowledges that we Jews struggle to ‘keep Shabbat,’ and that if we were to really do so well, for two Shabbats in a row, we’d be living in truly unreal, redeemed times) — no, I bring this up not to guilt us but to rejoice in what we share together, all of us, already: a Jewish way of marking time and meaning that, especially during difficult times like now, can be a structure to lean on, if we choose it. 

Speaking of communal calendars and time: Today, we read parshat Balak, along with many other Progressive Jewish communities in the Diaspora, as well as all Israeli Jewish communities. Meanwhile, traditional and Orthodox Jewish communities in the Diaspora are reading a double portion — the portions Chukat *and* Balak. For the past several weeks, half of the Jewish world has been reading a different Torah portion each week than the other half! And now, on this Shabbat, we all come together again for the rest of the (Jewish) year. This is another way we mark meaning in time together. We might think, perhaps, that we do not share as much with our ultraorthodox neighbours in Stamford Hill as we do with our non-Jewish neighbours… but they are reading parshat Balak today too. Jewish children all over the world are wondering about that wild talking donkey and the angel with the drawn sword! 

Rashi comments that that angel was an Angel of Mercy, an angel of God, who wished to deter Bilaam from sinning– not so dissimilar from the good Shabbos angel who encourages us to look for the beauty and meaning in the Jewish tradition, to lean on old ritual — or to have the courage perhaps to start new rituals — during difficult moments. 

And, if we go by Bilaam’s example, it seems we are given many chances to choose meaning — three separate times the angel stops Bilaam’s donkey, giving him the chance to turn back, AND the third time Bilaam opens his mouth to curse us, the Jewish people, what we know as the MAH TOVU comes out instead!

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Jewish people!

One might say the better angels of Bilaam’s nature won out.

May the better angels of our nature also win out. May we let them.

I hope that for those of us down at the pub today — and those of us not! — this Shabbat can be one of cautious optimism. We have got through one era of lockdown — the era when we didn’t know anything about the virus (now we genuinely do know much more, both about how to treat it and how it’s transmitted) and into an era when two leading British vaccines are starting human trials! 

And as we mark national and international time by this pandemic clock, we also mark Jewish time by our own eternal schedules– Torah portions and Shabbats and, I hope for each of us, finding what is meaningful about our Jewishness in difficult times. 

Our ancestors believed in angels. 

Our rational Liberal Jewish sensibilities might scoff at such ideas. We, like Bilaam, are sometimes unable to see the great wonder in the world, even though a donkey can. I hope we see — and build together — a little of that wonder and beauty this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom.