Friday, June 29, 2018

Parashat Balak: Social Growth

Social Growth
A Message for Parashat Balak 2017
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It is difficult to overlook several ironies that are latent in Bilam’s blessings to Am Yisrael, when reading them within their proper context.

Consider the opening words of his first berakhah:

Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. (Bemidbar 23:9)

Whereas Bilam praised the nation for their ability to stand apart from other nations, the immediate aftermath of this episode is one of intermingling and sexual misconduct between the men of Am Yisrael and the women of neighboring Moav![1]

The third berakhah, as well, is quite ironic. Glancing at the nation’s ordered encampment in accordance with their tribes (24:2), Bilam exclaimed:

How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael. (24:5)

The very structure that impressed Bilam at that moment was, in the eyes of the Hakhamim, a strong cause for the group that had not long before joined Korah in rebellion. The Hakhamim explained that the several members of the tribe of Reuven who joined Korah were specifically drawn to him because of their adjacent living quarters![2]
* * * *
Christopher Thomas Knight is the subject of a recent book by Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.[3] Knight lived in solitude in the woods of Central Maine for nearly thirty years. He directly encountered and exchanged word with another person only once during that duration. Following his forced emergence into society, Finkel pressed him to share insights about life and the human condition that he had gleaned during his extended period of solitude. Knight responded:
I did examine myself. Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing – when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.[4]
Knight described his “freedom” as a complete loss of self-identity. It was born out of isolation from others. A loss of societal pressures to explain one’s thoughts, beliefs or actions to others, necessarily leads to the loss of one’s name.
* * * *
This insight may further explain a detail from an earlier episode in the Torah. Upon learning about God’s punishment to him for killing his brother, Kayin immediately settled to the east of Eden, bore a child with his wife and built the mankind’s first city.[5] What was the significance of his city-building?

Tracing backwards for the source of sin in Bereshit, a peculiar dialogue following Adam’s indulgence from the ess ha-hayim stands out. God asked him, “Where are you?” And Adam had difficulty responding. [6] Rav Kook z”l suggested that this exchange revealed the core of Adam’s sin. Adam’s inability to properly identify himself left him in the perfectly vulnerable state for the serpent’s evil advice.[7] Reflecting upon his own sin, perhaps Kayin discovered that it too had stemmed from a deficient self-identity. The cause of that deficiency was perhaps his state of quasi-solitude. He therefore set out to “discover himself” by creating the social environment of a city.
* * * *
Philosopher David Kishik noted that “philosophy” is typically depicted as a solitary activity conducted in remote natural settings. People generally believe that philosophers think in a clearing in the middle of the forest, a cave on the slope of a mountain, or on a rocking chair on a porch in a quaint college town. Kishik noted that this is far from the truth. He noted that the birthplace of the ancient philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle was the city of Athens. Many important strands of modern philosophy were similarly born in the city – from Bacon’s London to Descartes’s Paris and Spinoza’s Amsterdam, all the way to James’s New York. He explained the reason for this phenomenon:
Ideas do not operate in a void. They respond to and depend on human beings in particular situations. Ideas prevail not because of their immutable logic but because they are embedded in the social environment at hand.[8]
His observations broaden our analysis, as they suggest that even the thoughts that extend beyond our self-understanding are best performed by means of exchange with others.
* * * *
Perhaps the depth of Bilam’s blessings lies in their irony.

Am Yisrael’s failure with benot Midian was a paradoxical step forward in establishing their national distinction. The strength of a nation that has never ventured – and even stumbled – beyond its environs is considerably weaker than one that has. True self-identity is born out of encounters with others. It is the questioning pressures of a social environment that force us to best articulate our beliefs. And though Korah’s companions from the tribe of Reuven found themselves on the wrong side of an ideological divide, the exchange of ideas that resulted from the structure of their encampment was commendable.
* * * *
In his The Big Sort, Bill Bishop wrote about how contemporary American society has geographically, politically and even spiritually “sorted itself” into like-minded groups. He explained the tragic outcome:
As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.[9]
Our reactions to the setbacks that result from our involvement with people who think differently than us are often short-sighted. Our search for immediate results “in our favor” and the fear of potential pitfalls cause us to avoid these opportunities for growth. Bilam’s blessings urge us to reconsider.

[1] Bemidbar 25:1.
[2] See Commentary of Rashi to 16:1, s.v. ve-Datan.
[3] Michael Finkel, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (New York, NY, 2017).
[4] Michael Finkel, “The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit,” GQ Magazine, Aug. 4, 2014.
[5] Bereshit 4:16-17.
[6] Bereshit 3:9-10.
[7] Mussar ha-Kodesh no. 97.
[8] David Kishik, “Metrosophy: Philosophy and the City,” The New York Times, July 6, 2015.
[9] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (New York, NY, 2008), pg. 39.