Everything Is Fine Until the Animals Talk Back

Hope everyone had a great week.  I heard some wonderful stories this week I’d like to share, especially because they tease out a beautiful message in this week’s parshah. 

One of my sons was on vacation and met an iguana that was hanging around his room.  He told me how he planned to have the iguana eat out of his hand by the end of the two weeks.  He explained to me that iguana’s display certain behaviours when they feel threatened or cornered.  He detailed the behaviours he was watching for.  I realized my son speaks ‘iguana’ and wondered whose genes he inherited. 

He planned where and how he would meet and greet the iguana everyday and how he would advance his plan to interact.  His wife showed me a video on her phone of their last day on vacation as the iguana came to my son and ate from his hand.

I am in awe. 

Please understand, I have no desire to communicate with an iguana. Reptiles make me nervous.  I take no comfort when I’m told they’re more afraid of me than I am of them because that just means now they feel trapped and I’m the bigger threat. I am more the school of thought that says ‘as long as we don’t see each other we won’t scare the living daylights out of each other’ – fair is fair – and most reptiles smell my philosophy all over me and thankfully leave me alone.

But I was still in awe.

And as wonderful as the iguana story is, because it’s so unusual, the second story is also great for the opposite reason, it is so common.  It involves a clown fish and her clown fish mate.  My only exposure to clown fish is from the movie Finding Nemo and it definitely doesn’t do them justice.  Ms. CLOWN FISH (and I deliberately capitalize that), dominates Mr. clown fish in every way.  He eats and sleeps when she gives him permission and in return, she protects him – she is larger and basically organizes and rules his life.  She is Clown Fish Queen!

I was told that when these fish first meet, the female will bump the male with her nose, and he must then vibrate in response.  Apparently, she is asking if he accepts her as dominant and she demands he vibrate to indicate yes.  If he does not vibrate, she kills him.  Interesting system.

Why am I sharing these obscure stories?  Because they speak directly to this week’s parshah of the foreign prophet and the talking donkey.  This week’s parshah is Balak and in the parshah, Balak, the King of Moab, hires Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel.  Much as he tries, Balaam cannot curse us because God has made it clear to him that we are blessed.  He tries repeatedly and fails each time.

In fact, in one attempt, his donkey refuses to walk because she sees an angel blocking her way with an outstretched sword.  Balaam doesn’t see the angel.  After beating her, the donkey speaks to Balaam and explains about the angel and only then is he able to see it.  Yes, this is in the Torah.

I am fascinated with how animals play into the lives of foreign prophets or prophets headed to foreign lands.  Balaam and his donkey are the most obvious example but when the prophet Jonah tries to avoid delivering a prophecy to a foreign land, a whale swallows him, shelters him and ultimately delivers him where he needs to be.

These instances of extraordinary natural interactions are only a few indications of what the Sages tell us about the vision of creation.  According to the midrash, all of creation shares a common language but most of humanity has forgotten it.  The water in the clouds and the water in the earth speak and coordinate how to feed the grass and trees. The rain will limit itself to only penetrate so deep since the waters in the earth will only rise so far.  That way, little roots are fed and giant roots are fed in perfect balance. 

Unfortunately, the Sages believe we have made ourselves deaf to this language and over time, we have stopped hearing it.  There is a midrash that describes how we cut fruit bearing trees because we no longer hear them cry for the loss of their fruit, their children, but apparently their cries fill the world. 

In its original vision, we believe creation embodies unimaginable diversity of species who all connect, communicate and collaborate toward balance.  Yet so much of that has gone astray and it becomes so disheartening but then I think of my son and the iguana and the language of the clown fishes and the angel and the donkey. 

In fact, it is Balaam, the foreign ill-intentioned prophet, who ultimately blesses Israel and says, “Ma Tovu” – How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.  Every siddur begins with these words and tradition says we should speak them as we enter any shul.  But we’ve taken that even further.  Jewish gatherings and summer bonfires are filled with people swaying, arms on each other’s shoulders, singing Ma Tovu.  Kids are taught to sing it in rounds, and we take it as a moment of unity and harmony.

The Torah teaches us that God speaks with everyone and the Sages remind us that the wise one is the one who learns from every person.  As summer surrounds us and we are filled with the sounds of nature everywhere, what a beautiful message this week to take even a few seconds and listen to the sounds around us and remind ourselves that it is, in fact, a language.          

How beautiful and humbling are the words of a foreign prophet.


Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.

The ‘Holiness Competition’ Fallacy

            Welcome to the renewal of my blog.  It’s been a few years since I posted anything and I’m excited to get back to sharing my thoughts.  Right now, I’m in Israel for a week, some personal stuff and some work meetings.  The trip got off to a roaring start when I got to the airport and lost an earring I was very fond of.  I had a very comfortable seat on the plane but accidentally managed to get gum on my headphones which then stuck in my hair.  After we landed, apparently some innocuous machine prints out your tourist visa, a small piece of paper that no one tells you is important and will save you taxes.  Needless to say, I lost that piece of paper getting into the taxi and didn’t have it for the hotel, so I was charged taxes as an Israeli, the default visa.  Jet lagged, exhausted, confused about the time difference, I went to bed hoping everything would be better in the morning.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the night I was awakened by a very large cockroach in the bed.  I was done.  Zionism will only take me so far…

            A few hours later I sat quietly enjoying an Israeli breakfast and the incredible flavours of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country.  I felt a bit better.  I went with my daughter to Ben Yehudah street and we shopped for a purse.  I walked into a store and tried on a bag that goes across the body and noticed the strap in the front is cutting a tight line between my breasts.  It was clearly not designed for a woman but the bag was so comfortable.  I turned to my daughter and asked if it looked funny.  She was laughing too hard to answer.  There were three other women there including the store manager.  The other women were clearly very observant and I was standing there in pants and no wig. 

            But I was beyond caring about my appearance and tired from no sleep.  I boldly asked them if the strap drew too much attention to ‘the girls’.  They asked if I meant my breasts and I said I did.  For a moment they were quiet so I turned to each of them with a front view so they could give me an honest opinion.  The store manager said she often wondered about women who buy these bags and how they wear them.  One of the women said she’s seen so much worse while the other woman said she liked it and ‘the girls’ seemed okay.  With everyone staring at my chest we forgot about my exposed hair and my pants.  Or maybe it never mattered to them in the first place.

            The lost earring, the gum in my hair, the missing visa and even the midnight cockroach didn’t matter anymore.  My thoughts went to the parshah this week, Korach.  In it, Moses’ leadership is challenged by his cousin, Korach.  Ultimately, Korach and his followers are literally swallowed by the earth.  A plague is sent by God against Israel and Moses tells Aaron to offer a sacrifice.  When he does, the Torah says “he stood between the dead and the living and he stopped the plague.” To me, this is Aaron’s greatest moment. 

            The issue is huge.  The problem with Korach and the people was their determination to create divisions of holiness within the people.  They presumed to speak for God, rather than to God.  They claimed to be as holy as Moses, as spiritual and as worthy.  They introduced the ‘holiness competition’ into the nation – who can outdo whom in this holy race – the one who ends up closer to God wins. 

            Rather than competing with each other in an effort to be holier than our neighbour, the Torah reminds us again and again that it is our individual and unique voices that are needed.  Since God is an Infinite Being, we are invited to explore infinite roads and relationships with God.  The Torah guides us with boundaries but allows us to define the content of our spirituality. 

            Now, as I walk around Jerusalem, I no longer see the differences in the Jews on the street with worry about conflicting views – I’m enjoying the sight and sound of our differences.  The women in the purse shop responding to me in a mundane moment as we each stood there with our differences. I see one nation of individuals, I feel the potential of our diversity and the importance of Jewish pluralism.

            I can’t wait to shop again.