Taking it out on the Little Guy


Hope you all enjoy this commentary I offered during the Sim Shalom online Shabbat morning service.  Join me next time August 6 at 8:30am PST/11:30 EST by going to www.simshalom.com.

In the portion for this Shabbat, we have a king named Balak.  Balak is not too happy about the fact that the Israelites (who, by the way, are still in the wilderness heading toward the Promised Land) seem to be able to conquer whatever enemies they encounter.  Knowing the Israelites are protected by their God, Balak figures he needs some strong magic to defeat them, so he calls upon Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse them.

Now, Bilaam is not an Israelite, but he’s caught on to the power of their God and not only believes in that God but seems able to have full-fledged conversations with God.  So, when Balak sends messengers to ask Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam talks to God and says no.   But over time, they wear him down, and God says he can go as long as he only says and does what God tells him to.

So, off Bilaam goes with the king’s soldiers, riding on his donkey, when an angel of God stands in their way.   Apparently God decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all to let Bilaam hang with the king’s soldiers.   Perhaps God could sense that Bilaam’s allegiance was wavering.  The donkey can see this angel, and she stops in her tracks (yes, this is a girl donkey).  Bilaam is quite angry at the donkey because he can’t see the angel, so he beats and beats her.  And then, the donkey does the unexpected.  She speaks.  She says to her rider, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?  Look, I am the she-ass you have been riding all along until this day!  Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”  

Bilaam realizes the error of his ways, and with that, his eyes also open so he can see the angel of God too.  Now all is understood about what he must do.  In the end, Bilaam blesses the Israelites rather than cursing them, naturally angering the king to no end.

As I was thinking about this portion, it occurred to me that it has a great deal in common with the Harry Potter story.  Once I chatted with my 14 year old (who knows all things Harry Potter), I was sure.

In Harry Potter, the king Balak is played by, of course, the evil Lord Voldemort.  Both of them are powerful.  Both of them act out of fear of their own deaths.  Both of them send others to do much of their dirty work.  God is represented by Dumbledore, the ever-wise, good, and powerful wizard who is lovingly protective of his “nation”, but will kick butt if he needs to, in spite of his peaceful soul.  Balak is Snape, the teacher who picks endlessly on Harry and whom no one quite knows if he is an instrument of Lord Voldemort’s or Dumbledore’s until the very end.   The angel is Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, who comes to the rescue only to those who believe in the Good and is no help to those who don’t. 

And who is the donkey?  Why, Harry Potter himself!  He is “ridden” constantly by his teacher Snape… cornered, accused, and threatened at every turn.  And why?  Because (at least while he’s young) he is easy prey for Snape’s anger, and because Harry has his mother’s eyes which are wide open to the Good while Snape’s are too confused to fully see. 

It’s easy to understand why fantastical stories such as this one in the Torah or Harry Potter are popular.  They have obvious sides of good and evil, and there are clear heroes for whom we can root.  But most intriguing are the middle-men, Bilaam and Snape, the ones we aren’t quite sure whether they are part of the light or part of the dark.

They are us.

None of us are Voldemort and none of us are Dumbledore.  None of us are Balak or God. We are all somewhere in between.  We all serve something that might be considered a “dark lord”.  It could be an abusive relationship, a nasty boss whom we feel we have to appease, our egos, or an addiction of some sort no matter how minor that addiction is, but we’ve all got something. However, we all serve light masters too… children who remind us who we really want to be, supportive spouses, mentors, parents, communities, faith structures, and friends.  We find ourselves battling with these two sides all the time, and often the negative voices seem to be louder than the positive.  And while we are arguing with those voices in our heads, we may find there is someone younger or smaller or weaker we can let out some of our frustrations on because we believe they won’t fight back.  Maybe we find ourselves being less than our best to an employee, or a waiter, or a less popular kid in class, or a bagger at the market…  Maybe we hurt the ones we love most, like our children or our spouses, because we know they will forgive us. 

But maybe, just maybe, those “little guys” are the guys who can see the Truth, who can see the angel, who can be heard by Fawkes.  We might not consider them enough, or give them enough respect to notice that they are staring straight into the eyes of an angel of God.  We miss the opportunity to learn from them because it appears they have nothing to teach. But let’s remember the idea that we should treat every human as if he/she was the Messiah, because if a Messiah comes, it might not appear as a king or as a president, but as some kind of quiet request.  The student.  The employee.  The waiter.  The homeless. 

We may not be sorcerers or wizards, but we all harness an enormous amount of power over each person we encounter every day.  Which master do we serve as we engage with each one?  Do we act from love or fear?  Let’s be truthful with ourselves, and when we catch ourselves operating from fear, let’s try to open our eyes, see the angel before us with a hand open-palmed in a gesture of “Stop!”, and try again from a place of love.

What Harry Potter Taught Me About Being Jewish


“Yeh don’ know… yeh don’ know…”  Hagrid ran his fingers through his hair, fixing Harry with a bewildered stare.  “Yeh don’ know what yeh are?” — JK Rowling

What are we?

The Harry Potter series has captured many hearts and minds.  I hadn’t read any of the books or seen any of the movies until a recent trip to London where my children insisted we do everything and anything having to do with Harry Potter.  So, I figured there was no better place or time to start, and I picked up the first book.

I have only made it through 6 chapters, but I already get why there are so many “Potterheads”.

Everyone feels a little bit like Harry Potter.  We all feel a little stifled, misunderstood, like we don’t fit in.  We all, no matter how palatial our homes, sometimes feel like we are squeezing our lives into a little cupboard under the stairs.  Perhaps it is that our careers have become monotonous or that we aren’t seeing eye to eye with our families.  Perhaps we are lonely or unwell.  Maybe we just feel like there’s something else out there waiting for us (cue music from West Side Story).  Maybe we are seemingly the most beautiful, most interesting people in the world, and yet no one on the outside knows the insecurities and pains we hide on the inside.

No matter what our personal stories are, we all have a bit of a fantasy that an enigmatic stranger might knock on our doors and whisk us away to discover who we really are, don’t we?  We all dream of lives with more creativity, camaraderie, color, excitement, and adventure.  We all wonder if we are really wizards.

Well, we probably aren’t.  But, what are we waiting for?  Let’s find the lives we’ve always wanted ourselves!

The Jewish calendar is chock full of opportunities to refresh and renew our lives, but there is no time more focused on these themes than the Jewish Holy Days (which are sneaking up on us pretty quickly!).  During the Holy Days we ask, who and what are we?  We reflect on all we have done or not done this year.  We acknowledge that we have hurt others intentionally or unintentionally.  We ask what we could have done better for the earth, for others, for our families, and for ourselves.  We cry out, “I’m sorry!” to each other and to the Universe with full hearts and pure intentions.  We deprive ourselves of the usual comforts in order to empty out our daily expectations and be a clean slate for the promise of the year to come.  We stand at the starting line of the first day of the rest of our lives and think long and hard about which direction our feet should go.  Finally, we boldly take a step toward our true selves, together.

It’s an enormously powerful process, but it ain’t easy.  And we have to do all of this transformational work ourselves.  No wizards.  No Hagrid.  No platform 9 and 3/4.  Just self examination, realization, admittance, and prayer.

Rabbi Sharon Brous said in her guide for the High Holy Days, “Each of us has a choice… will we allow the holidays to push us, through great discomfort, even excruciating pain, to say NO MORE!  I must change!  I want to reclaim the part of me that believes that I can be anything, that everything is possible.”

Everyone loves Harry Potter because each of us knows there is a little bit of “wizard” hiding inside.  Maybe that’s the stuff of childhood dreams, but in some ways, embracing the flow of the Holy Days is also very “childlike.”  Then, too, we choose (as Rabbi Brous so beautifully points out) to believe in believing again.  And that is real magic.

Shabbat Shalom, Potterheads. 🙂

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Muslims, Jews, and Friendship

I grew up in a town that was about 50% Jewish.

My best friend… was Muslim.

Granted, we were definitely not the most observant Jews and they were definitely not the most observant Muslims, but we were who we were.  I knew some of their relatives in Iran didn’t approve of our friendship, but that always seemed to me like an Iranian problem and not an American one.  It never even occurred to me that there was a Muslim/Jewish “conflict” in the minds of Americans until I was embarrassingly old.

I have extremely fond memories of my friend.  She was my closest pal from when I was 2, and we remained friends into our college years.  I can still breathe in and remember what her house smelled like when her mother was cooking.  I can still feel the pinch of her father’s fingers on my cheeks.  I can still remember the layout of their house, and knocking on her back door when we would pick her up to go somewhere.  I can still recognize an Iranian accent as soon as I hear it. I grew up eating in their home, and I still find myself salivating at the sight of Tahdig whenever I am lucky enough to find myself in the same room as that unbelievably delicious and crunchy rice dish.  The sights, sounds and aromas of their home were comforting to me when I was a little girl.  It was a second home.  No Muslim/Jewish conflict there, and for that reason, there is no conflict in me.

This weekend is the Muslim/Jewish Twinning.  Many synagogues and mosques, Rabbis, Cantors and Imams are going to gather together, around the world, in friendship and unity.  Some will chat together.  Some will do volunteer work together.  Some will pray together.  Some will make music together.  My Temple is always involved with this Twinning weekend, and I must say, I have had a few amazing experiences because of it.  What’s strange is that in spite of those experiences, the Muslim/Jewish Twinning weekend usually leaves me feeling a little empty at the end.  Yes, we will gather together and sing and pray and talk, and that is terrific.  But if we don’t see each other until the next annual Twinning weekend, I’m not sure what we have accomplished.  I always feel that we, in a way, are preaching to the choir.  Everyone present wants to be there.  Everyone there already has peace in mind.  It’s the folks who choose NOT to attend that we need to talk to, and it is possible that this kind of forum will never be inviting to them.

Maybe, rather than only getting together on the premise of “dealing” with the “issues” and finding that mostly like-minded Jews and Muslims congregate, we also need to simply sit together, eat some Tahdig and rugelah, go to the movies, talk about our kids, which dentist we go to, which farmer’s market has the best stuff, watch our children play together, and begin the long journey toward intertwining our lives.  We don’t have to talk about politics or religion.  We could just become friends.  Once there is friendship, how could we ever ignore one another again, much less support hurting one another?   If our children grow up together, maybe the possibility of conflict will seem as alien to them as it was to me.

Take a look around your offices, your schools, your neighborhoods.  Maybe there is someone out there (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever!) that you could invite over for coffee and a chat, and do your small part to heal cultural conflicts simply by making a new friend who looks, sounds, cooks, and prays a little differently than you do.  I’m going to try.  Will you?

By the way, my friend’s parents and my parents are still close.  It’s been 40 years.