Parashat Balak 5776https://hevreh.org/wp-content/uploads/podcast-balak-5776.m4a
“There was a man in the land of Uz named Job. That man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” Job had 10 children–seven sons and three daughters. He was the wealthiest man in East.
Such is our introduction to one of, if not the, most difficult books in the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Job. Job is difficult for two reasons:
First, the language. The Hebrew is profoundly hard to understand. Here’s a 100 point Scrabble word: hapaxlegomenon. A hapaxlegomenon is a word that is without peer, meaning it is used only in the one instance in which it is found. Getting underneath it’s meaning is difficult because there are no other examples within the Bible of that word being used, so context clues are limited to its single use. The Book of Job employs a lot of hapax words. “So much so that some scholars have wondered if it is a bad translation from another language!” (Bretler, 243).
Second, the Book of Job is difficult because of its content. Job’s story is what we call theodicy. The book addresses that horrible question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job was blameless, one who feared God, and who shunned evil. And in the first chapters of the book, God takes Job’s family from him, along with all of his possessions. Why? Why would a man like Job be made to suffer? That is a question of theodicy. And that is a question that is not easily answered.
For these two reasons the Book of Job is exhausting to try to penetrate.
Yet, a play that is currently running at the Chester Theater, tackles the topic of Job in a way I had never encountered before. Currently, in partnership with the Israeli Stage out of Boston, the Chester is performing a play called Oh God! The tag line is “Sometimes, even God needs a therapist.” Last week, I had the chance to see the play. It was one of the best written and best acted performances I have seen in a long time.
G–who we later come to realize is the Holy One of Blessing–comes into a psychologist’s office for a single session. God wants to be treated, because God wants to die. “But you can’t die,” the doctor exclaims, “unless you wipe out humanity!” At which point she pauses, realizes that God is dealing with something serious, and needs some really good empathic care. The rest of the play, I do not want to give away, nor would I do justice to it. Suffice it to say, if you have time in your culture and arts calendar to see this, I would encourage you to do so.
As the conversation between the therapist and God continues, the therapist realizes that God is stuck on what happened in His relationship with Job. The therapist wonders: Why did You kill his entire family? Why did You take all of his possessions? Why did Job deserve such a difficult decree when he was an upstanding individual? Why be a Destroyer, when God so clearly takes joy in being the Creator?
To this, God rants “You cannot begin to comprehend why I do things!… Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions Or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone? … Have you ever commanded the day to break, Assigned the dawn its place… Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, Or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been disclosed to you? Have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth? If you know of these — tell Me.” (Job 38)
In other words, “Who are you, o mortal, to attempt to understand Me?!”
The therapist pushes God–why are you overcompensating? Why boast? Bragging does not become You. Job loved You; You take away his family. Job was looking for solace and comfort; You shout and scream that Job just won’t understand any answer You give. Job did not want an answer. Job wanted love. Why are you being defensive?
There’s quiet, and the therapist has a realization–You boast and brag because you loved Job, and you broke Job’s heart. And your heart broke as well. God is feeling guilt.
Compassion enters the room.
“Why did you do it?” the psychologist presses again.
“Satan made me do it,” God said.
And here enters the crux of the story–God was swayed by Satan. Who is this satan? Satan is not the devil of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan appears only a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible, 33 to be precise, which is not often.
The JPS translation of the Hebrew Bible translates satan as the Adversary. Satan appears in Job as someone who sits in God’s court. Looking at when satan appears, it seems that God can be swayed by satan, so much so that God can hurt someone like Job. Who is this satan? What is this satan?
Satan does not seem to be a proper being in its own right. The way the Hebrew is delivered, it does not seem to be a proper name. But satan can be a being who acts in the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, satan makes his first appearance: Balak, the king of Moab decides to curse the Israelite people. And so, he hires Balaam, a prophet for hire to go and issue that curse on the people. As Balaam makes his way to the Israelites, satan appears: “God was angered by Balaam and Balak, and so God sent malach Adonai an angel/messenger of the Eternal to confront Balaam along the way, to be satan, to be adversarial” (Numbers 12:22)
In this week’s Torah portion, satan is the one who gets in the way, to block a curse. “Who is this satan who appears here?” our biblical commentators wonder. Satan is malach Adonai, an agent of the Eternal God, who exists not on high, nor from below, but who acts in our world (Ibn Ezra). Satan is among humanity. Satan is that one who gets in the way.
Satan is that contrary urge that exists among and within us. The yin to our yang. The dark to our light. Yetzer Ra to our Yetzer Tov. In the Book of Job, God gives in to the Yetzer Ra, the bad inclination, rather than being light-filled and good, the Yetzer Tov. In Job, God epitomizes what we all struggle with–sometimes we are not our best selves. Often, we are not as good as we hope to be. We can even hurt people we love. And we can damage ourselves in that process. In this manner, the Yetzer Ra, satan, is real, because it’s a part of us.
I see this in how we treat children. Address the act, don’t label the child, we teach. There is no such things as a good child or a bad child. When a child hits his or her sibling on purpose, sure, it may have been done with malice, but the child is not malicious; the act was. One is not a bad person; we do bad things. Satan appears in those moments in which we are not our best selves. In which we act in adversarial ways, counter to the way we ourselves would like to behave.
And we have all fallen into those traps. It’s the nature of the Yetzer Ra. A midrash is written about the word chayim, our Hebrew word meaning Life. Why is the word written with two yuds? It could be written with one and still mean the same thing. The Sages taught that the two yuds are there to represent the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Ra, that within our life there exists both good and bad, and that we have the potential to do both good and bad things. That we will hurt and be hurt. And that we can also heal, care, and love. For as much as we can at times push people away, we can also draw people into a hug.
In this week’s Torah portion, in our Hebrew scriptures, in the play Oh God, a single message comes through: we are imperfect and fragile beings. We are capable of breaking things, but we have to remember that we can mend that which was broken as well. There is holiness in that fragility. There is holiness in that imperfection.