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Speech and Transformation

My dear friend SNSM urged me to write about what I find important or meaningful about that paper on Bilaam.

I think that I used to see the story as kind of simple--okay, a talking ass, no big deal. I mean, kind of strange, but lots of stories in the Torah are kind of strange, and I didn't ascribe any particular power or meaning to this one.

The research I did for the paper, which led me to the conclusion that the story is about the power of speech--the power of speech to bless and curse, to subjugate or overpower, to elevate or lower--made the story much more meaningful. I have long felt that words are incredibly powerful, maybe one of the most powerful things known to human beings. Research shows that words can alter brain chemistry. On a macro level, words can cause war and words can bring peace. On a micro level, words can change everything about the way an individual sees the world. I fundamentally believe that words are what make people people, and, more specifically, what makes me me. The words I speak and the words I write make me who I am, for better or for worse. They are at the core of my identity. (Not coincidentally, I also think that books have the power to change my life.)

The power behind this story is that it illustrates, in a very straightforward way, and against Bilaam's wishes, that words come from God. There is a beautiful part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy (I think, although it may be Yom Kippur), which says that the creation and expression of words are a partnership between people and God. People think them and God arranges them, or the opposite. Something like that. I don't have a machzor here, but if I did, I would find it. This rings true for me, in a way that many other things in the liturgy just don't. I often feel that there are words stuck inside me that "want out," for lack of a better expression, and it seems impossible to stop them. On the other hand, there are times when I want to say something and cannot. I believe that these words that we say and write are created through our free will, but there can be something so powerful and magical about words, and speech, that I find it hard to believe that God isn't involved at all.

And that's why I like that paper. I'm not sure the paper itself says all of this, but that's what it makes me think. All that, from the story of a talking ass. Go figure! And Shabbat shalom.

Categories: parsha, Torah

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