by Ren Margolis-Dubow
For a modern-day kid like me, the Torah is full of so many interesting and curious phenomena. I had heard about God talking through a rock, and through a burning bush, and now in my Torah portion, God speaks through a donkey. I think that’s pretty cool.
In my parsha, Balak, the king of Moab, summons Balaam, a peasant soothsayer, to curse the Israelites after he sees them defeat other powerful nations in battle. While Balaam is on his way to Balak’s palace, Baalam’s donkey sees an angel of God and refuses to move any further. Balaam hits the donkey to urge him forward. In response, God speaks through the mouth of the donkey and tells Balaam NOT to curse the Israelites. After this command, Balaam continues on his journey, finally arriving in Moab, where he is taken to three places by Balak, so that he could curse the Israelites from three different viewpoints. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blesses them each time.
When we were selecting a parsha, I liked this one immediately because it reminded me of a story I had read about King Christian of Denmark in a book my Aunt Allie gave me when I was little, called The Yellow Star. In that story, King Christian defies the oppressor, in his case, the Nazis, in order to stand up for the Jewish Danes – just like Balaam stands up for the Israelites.
It may be because I’m a person who likes to formulate questions, or maybe because I’m a Jew and it’s the stereotype that we question things in life, but I wanted to assess the historical accuracy of my Torah portion. My Torah portion takes place in Moab forty years after the Jews left Egypt. In a book my bar-mitzvah mentor, Lenore, shared with me, called The Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, I learned more about the possible historical accuracy of my parsha.
I can say for sure that some kind of Israeli group existed then. I also looked at maps that showed the land back then, and found out that places quite similar to Moab existed.
I also found out that in Egypt, archaeologists found a large stone pillar dating from 1207 B.C.E. Carved into it was the following: “Israel is laid waste. His seed is no more.” Historians believe that the leader of Egypt at the time, King Merneptah, had used the tablet to record his victories over Israel. I find it interesting that the carving mentioned that Israel (whatever that meant at the time) was completely obliterated, even the roots of Israel were destroyed (“his seed is no more”). I think that’s strange, because IF Israel had been destroyed, wouldn’t there be some mention of that in the Torah? Or maybe the King exaggerated his defeat of Israel.
As a Humanistic Jew, I believe the Torah is a piece of literature, a really, really important piece of literature. It can give us hints into the past, but it is not a perfect historical document. I think it’s important in upholding our Jewish culture and traditions. I also think there are valuable lessons that one could learn in the Torah, such as (don’t steal/have respect for others). A lot can be gained from studying Torah, but relying on the Torah for historical facts MIGHT NOT be the best idea.
What is perhaps most interesting to me about the Torah are the lessons in morality that it offers.
One moral of my Torah portion is to stay true to your character and have courage (“ometz” in Hebrew). I think when one person thinks differently than someone else; they must have a good reason for it. I see King Balak as a neutral person. He was trying to protect Moab from being pillaged by Israel. Moabites could have died. As the king he had a responsibility to protect everyone. In an attempt to protect his people, he commanded Balaam to curse the Israelites. He stayed true to his character because he offered a solution to a general concern.
On the other hand, Balaam is also doing what he thinks is right. He is not cursing the Israelites because he sees them as actual, individual people who are just as important as the Moabites. In everyday life, we see that people have different views on the same situation, but in each case, you can find a reason why people made the choices they did.
Whatever people see as the right thing to do is based upon their own individual values and perspectives.
This summer, when we were out walking the dog at dusk, my mom saw a large raccoon near our house. I wanted to see it too, so I could get mad at it since a raccoon had killed my chicken the week before. But then I decided maybe I shouldn’t curse the raccoon after all because that might not be fair. The raccoon was just seeking food. It was my perspective – that I saw the chicken as a loved pet – which caused me to see the raccoon’s action as negative.
The value of Tzedek – justice – also connects to my Torah portion because King Balak had asked Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam acted justly by NOT doing it. He realized the Israelites hadn’t done anything to deserve being cursed. Balaam saw that the Israelites were caring people. In his blessing to the Israelites, he says one of the most famous lines in the Torah, which is “ma tovu o ha-alecha, yaakov, mishkentotecha, Yisrael—how goodly are thy tents, O’ Jacob, thy dwelling places, O’ Israel.” He says this because he sees that all of the Israelites’ tents are carefully placed so that one family cannot see into the tent of another. This small detail, described in my portion, allows Balaam to feel the Israelites’ humanity. To curse them for no immediate reason would, therefore, be unjust.
Justice is really important to me too. Although I don’t have the opportunity to curse whole peoples, and thereby doom them to a certain death (as was the belief back then), I do frequently witness injustices. So, I belong to two different groups at my school that stand up against bullying. I do this because I strongly believe it is wrong for someone to be hurt because they are a minority of some sort. My parents tell me I am also quick to point out when I believe I am being treated unjustly in comparison to my sister.
As part of a Humanist bar-mitzvah, I was expected, and also wanted, to take on a mitzvah project. In Hebrew, we say “Tikkun Olam,” which means “repair the world.” For my mitzvah project, my mom and I considered a long list of community-service ideas. I decided to collect cell phones at my school, since “old” phones are usually just thrown out, which causes chemical leeching and pollution in landfills. I knew that people at my school get new phones often, and I wondered what they did with the old ones. On the internet I researched different cell phone donation organizations and I picked one that interested me: Securethecall.org. This organization fixes up donated phones and gives them to isolated seniors and victims of domestic violence, so they can call 911 in an emergency. Neither the seniors nor the victims of domestic violence have to pay for this 911 service.
I began my project by making an announcement on the school p.a. system. I was kind of nervous about how I was going to handle it all. Early one Wednesday morning I brought in about 30 cardboard collection boxes and gave one to each Advisory teacher. Many teachers asked me a lot about the drive, which caught me off guard. That prompted me to make a second, different announcement. I announced that the class with the most phones by the end of a week would receive party treats during advisory period. After school every day I went to each classroom and checked the boxes. There were no phones until Day 6. Surprisingly MY advisory class was the one that won the party treats. I announced the winner over the school p.a., but then the next day, I discovered another class had brought in more cell phones than my advisory class. I thought, “Yikes what should I do?” I knew the right thing to do was to give a prize to the winning class, but I wasn’t sure if it was right to buy treats for BOTH classes. I tried to think about what was fair. I ended up bringing in food for the second class as well.
(By the way, if you have any old cell phones, send them my way, and I will turn them in too.)
Another aspect of the Humanist bar-mitzvah in my congregation is to pick a hero who reflects my values. I couldn’t really choose a hero, since there isn’t any one person who reflects the majority of my values and interests. Eventually I decided that I have a few main heroes: First of all, Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and many medical devices; Thomas Edison, an inventor I’m sure you’ve never heard of; Oak Thorne, a bird-banding expert and founder of Boulder’s Thorne Ecological Institute; my grandfather, Nick Margolis, who is a pilot and a surgeon; and lastly, all of the kids out there who keep their own chickens, and/or invent.
These people are all strong examples of leadership and other things that I value, such as ingenuity, perseverance, creativity, and courage. I hope that I can learn to embody all of their best qualities.
Yasher koach, Ren! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.