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Parashat Balak – The Lion, the Witch & the Aron Kodesh – Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston

Looking into the inside, she saw several coats hanging up – mostly long fur coats. There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur. She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe. Soon she went further in and found that there was a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one. It was almost quite dark in there and she kept her arms stretched out in front of her so as not to bump her face into the back of the wardrobe. She took a step further in – then two or three steps always expecting to feel woodwork against the tips of her fingers. But she could not feel it.

 “This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. “I wonder is that more mothballs?” she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. “This is very queer,” she said, and went on a step or two further.”

When Lucy first enters the mystical land of Narnia she is a little frightened, but also inquisitive and excited. With the comfort of the open door behind her, for it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe, she knew she could explore and still get back to where she belongs. Her adventure was short lived in the real world, but to her she had been gone for hours, lost in an alternate reality. Her siblings accuse her of making up stories, of lying, or dreaming. That is until they too go through the wardrobe and become immersed in the magical world of Narnia.

What must it be like to open a rather normal looking cupboard and find yourself lost in the world of imagination and dreams. Perhaps, in a way, it would be like climbing into our own Aron Kodesh, and getting lost in what’s in there. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells a story of taking a group of nursery-school aged children into the synagogue for a tour. He showed them the bimah, the ner tamid, the cantor’s and rabbi’s lecterns. Finally, the tiny kids stood before the huge doors of the Ark.

“What do you suppose is in there?” he asked them.

“Nothing!” one child answered. “It’s empty.”

“A new car!” another shouted.

“Something really, really old” responded another.

“I know! I know,” one child said, insistently. “It’s a mirror!”

He concludes that in a way each of the children was right. For Jews who are distant and disconnected from Judaism, the first child was right: The Ark is empty. Judaism is alien and barren of meaning and substance. For others the second child was right, Judaism holds only a superficial, aesthetic appeal. It’s all bar mitzvah parties, smoked salmon bagels on Sunday morning, and what we’ll be wearing to Yom Kippur service this year. For some, Judaism is a tired, old, depleted faith. They hear in it nothing important for a modern mind, and what they do hear is interpreted as misogynistic, racist or coldly legalistic.

But for those who are prepared to look deeply and imaginatively, the Ark contains a mirror, reflecting the truth about ourselves, our values, our accomplishments and our limitations.

Every week we turn towards this wooden ark, we bow before its splendour, we parade around it’s contents. But what do we truly see? Is the Torah scroll we hold with such reverence just a symbol, or our own Jewish constitutional law, or is it just words and stories? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to truly enter the ark and become immersed in our text? Would we find ourselves in our own alternate reality, would we too walk into Narnia?

The stories of our ancestors, just like the chronicles of Narnia, would die if we do not bring their words to life. When we roll out that parchment week by week, and speak the words in front of us, we must open our imaginations to a world unknown. We should become captivated, not allowing the words to remain stagnant but instead bringing them to life through powerful imagery. For we truly belong to a religion constructed around words, where our words have the ultimate power both to create a world, but also to destroy one.

And in no place do we see that more clearly than this week where we find ourselves immersed in a novella within the book of numbers. A fairytale perhaps, one of wizardry and sorcery. If we allow ourselves to take the journey with our text we find ourselves transported into the ancient world of blessings and curses, where magic happens not with fancy potions but just with the power of the spoken word. In fact words are so important in this torah portion that even the Donkey talks, some three thousand years before Shrek was released.

In the first chapter of this novella, which we read this morning, Balak the king of Moab, is struck with fear as he sees how numerous the Israelites have become and how seamlessly they had reaped military victory over the Amorites. He compares Israel to the ox, licking clean the grass of the field. Midrash questions this comparison and concludes that just as the ox relies on his tongue to conquer fields, Israel relies on their mouths, using the power of their tongue and words to succeed. Hence Balak tries to beat them at their own word game, entreating the help of Balaam to take on his foes with the words of curses.

Spoiler alert, we see later on in the novella how the curse is turned into a blessing, one which we use every week in our liturgy, but that is almost irrelevant. For this year we did not read their words, just heard about their potential for destruction. It was words, not weapons, that Balak was going to use to take down his enemies.

The Torah, our potential mirror, demonstrates to us this week, just how vital our use of language is. Like the stories and words of our ancestors, which have become monumental in our Jewish lives, our words can be monumental in the lives of those that surround us. Our words have the power to create magical alternative realities, with just the opening of a cupboard door, to heal or to harm, to be used for good or evil, for blessing or for curses.

When we open the ark, like the wardrobe into Narnia, we open up a world of possibilities. When we open up our mouths it is the same story. Spanish Medieval commentator Maimonides tells us speech is a gift God has given only to man, and hence it must not be used for that which is degrading. Our tongue, our words, can be our best friend, or our worst foe.

So next time we open up our Aron Kodesh, and find ourselves in Narnia, we must think about what those ancient worlds have to offer us. We must find the relevance in their words, and transmit their message for good. And when we open up our mouths we must think before we speak, using the gift of our speech wisely. May we attempt to use our words for good, and not for evil. May all the curses of our mouths turn in to blessings. And may we find ourselves with a wealth of stories and opportunities, just like those of Narnia, or of the Torah.

Yihiyu l’ratson imrei fi, v’hegyon libi t’hilatecha, adonai tsuri v’goahli

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you God, my Rock and my Redeemer

Student Rabbi Hannah Kingston

Radlett Reform Synagogue

16th July 2016

Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781