Sermon: Balak

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 29 June 2021

‘Who is wise?’ Asks Ben Zoma in chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot, the text we are currently studying for a second time as part of the Alyth Chavruta Project (and it’s not too late to sign up and join us!) – chavruta the ancient Jewish practice of learning in pairs, of reading the text aloud together and struggling through it as a team, in the spirit of friendly disagreement. The answer that is given to the question who is wise: ‘The one who learns from every person, as it is written (in Psalm 119): “I have gained understanding from all my teachers.”’

MiKol Melamedai Hishkalti

This tells us something about chavruta itself – that we have to come to it prepared to learn from our partner; that if we come to the meeting interested only in our own interpretation, we preclude the possibility of real learning and real wisdom.

In theory this is very easy, in practice it is much harder. From personal experience – I know I often fail.

Particularly as adults, we come to most situations already with a clear sense of where we stand and how we interpret a given situation. If we attend a discussion, or a debate, or a panel of speakers, how often are we genuinely there to learn and absorb, and how often do we arrive already knowing who we are likely to support, and who are we likely to disagree with? So much so, that we might not even comprehend when someone we assume we disagree with says something we support. In other words, we mostly do not expect to learn from everyone. As Jacob as already pointed out, it is solutions and not sides that we should be focused on, but that relies on us preparing ourselves to really hear new perspectives and ideas.

I return to the quotation from Psalm 119: MiKol Melamedai Hishkalti – which Ben Zoma in the Mishnah interprets as ‘I have gained understanding from all my teachers’. Accept this at face value, assume that Ben Zoma’s understanding of the text must be right (and he is a rabbi of the Mishnah, after all) and again we close our minds to other possibilities. But if, rather, we look at the meaning in its original context, we see that (maybe) Ben Zoma is delivering something of an intellectual slight of hand. This distraction is based on the multiple ways of interpreting/translating the Hebrew prefix mi, which nowadays is understood to mean ‘from’ – hence ‘I have gained understanding from all my teachers’. However, in biblical Hebrew, the prefix is just as likely to mean ‘more than’ – making the verse read ‘I have gained understanding more than all my teachers’.

Thus, the reinterpretation of this tiny particle can mean the difference between narrowness and expansiveness; between being willing to learn something from everyone, and approaching every encounter with an assuredness that we have learnt far more than anyone else already.

Ben Zoma’s teaching is so important, because he reminds us how easy it is to go from one meaning to the other – how easy it is to go from saying ‘I heave learnt from all my teachers’ to ‘I know much more than all my teachers’.

It is easier, perhaps, to be prepared to learn from our chavruta partner, or from someone who we might associate with natural authority. It is much harder when the person who is speaking is on the margins, or who we would not naturally expect to learn from. In this week’s parashah, two characters open their mouths to say the unexpected. First, the ass on which Balaam is riding opens its mouth to protest at its treatment by its rider. Secondly, as Jacob has just read for us, Balaam himself opens his mouth to curse the Israelites, only to find himself blessing them.

We certainly don’t expect to learn from an ass, but in fact this beast of burden actually speaks much sense, and successfully challenges Balaam’s human arrogance. Hence, we read in Numbers Rabbah, a midrash on the book of Numbers: ‘Here was this ass, the most stupid of all beasts, and there was the wisest of all wise men, yet as soon as she opened her mouth he could not stand his ground against her!’

On both occasions in the biblical text, the voice is not one that is initiated by the character from whose mouth it issues. In the case of the ass, it is the voice of the angel; in the case of Balaam, it is the voice of God.

This leads to the question: What might happen to our understanding of unexpected utterances if we assume that they are the voice of God – that they come in order to provide divine disruption to what we think we already fully know and understand about the world? And what if we perceived having our perspective challenged or changed not as some form of weakness, something to be avoided, but as some kind of divine act?

So many people are dismissed as not being appropriate for us to learn from – historically because of their gender, sexuality, age, ability, race, religion, class, status – the list goes on. And it is not just historical prejudice.

And, as a result of not listening to divergent voices, we render ourselves unable to change – and more than this, suspicious of change, scared of its implications.

We see this illustrated in politics – U-turns and changes to policy are seen as weakness: if a politician or ruler promises something and then circumstances change or the political reality changes and they are forced to rethink their position and do something different, this is often exploited by opponents, used as a demonstration of weakness, of lack of conviction, of giving in to pressure from outside. What if we thought of it differently – that a willingness to change and to listen to other voices, to have our minds changed is a sign of strength and security in ourselves, rather than holding fast to our preconceived notions in order to avoid appearing weak.

And we have seen this illustrated in recent weeks in the case of one of my teachers, Rabba Dr Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz, who taught successfully for several years at the London School of Jewish Studies, up until the moment that she received ordination as an orthodox rabba, at which point the office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue decided that her teaching was no longer welcome. Not because she is a woman – she has been a woman teaching in orthodox spaces for many years – but because she challenged the orthodox world by taking the title of Rabba, a move that would have been completely unremarkable (indeed, would have been celebrated) in the case of one her male colleagues. Because of the assumption that they were already right in their view, they decided that Rabbah Lindsay had nothing worthy of learning from.

In the Talmud we see this illustrated in the famous chavruta partnership between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish – the former an established rabbinic authority and a direct descendent of the biblical Joseph, the latter a highwayman and criminal who becomes a sage later in life as a result of an encounter with Rabbi Yochanan. Together, they became the preeminent scholars of their generation – the two of them standing before their students and exemplifying chavruta study in their ability to disagree in a constructive manner. Until one day Reish Lakish contradicts something that Rabbi Yochanan says, and Yochanan responds by reminding his partner of the base world from which he came as a gang member. The result of this inability to hear and to acknowledge the possibility of learning from our fellows, is death for Reish Lakish, and madness and sorrow for Rabbi Yochanan.

Over and over in Jewish tradition we are told to choose life, to embrace life – and in this case, choosing life means to hear, to be willing to listen and to learn, even from those who we might otherwise dismiss.

After all, is the commandment to listen not central to Jewish teaching: Shema Yisrael – open your ears Israel, hear Israel, listen Israel, pay attention Israel, learn Israel.

Who is wise? Pirkei Avot asks. One who learns from everyone – for however learned we are, there is still more to take in, and so much more for us to grow into. We should be willing to find wisdom and guidance not just in the obvious places, but in those that we do not expect. We should be open to possibilities and, in doing so, be open to touching the face of God.