After some days in the desert, we arrive in the City of the Angles. I know that some of my ‘NorCal’ friends will cringe, but I like LA a lot, as do the other 13 million some who live around here, and who opt to all be on the freeways at the same time, or so it seems. Our visit is unusual: we’re not going to see Universal Studios or Disney Land; no stop at LACMA or La Brea tar pits; no drive along the beautiful Sunset Boulevard to look for the actors and other glitzy stars. We’ll skip those and many other fun attractions, but we will go on a three hours tour to the Museum of Tolerance.
At times I wonder, perhaps sacrilegiously, if that is the true holocaust. Not only what happened 70 some years ago but the fact that it’s etched and re-etched into our psyche. A day earlier, we visit Hoover Dam, and a group of kids get separated into another elevator. It’s not even a matter of 5 minutes before we meet up again, but I already have images of other cars carrying kids off; not to mention when the guide asks us to line up against the wall.
One of our participants is not feeling well this morning, and opts for an extra nap on the soft benches of the Hollywood Museum’s movie theater. I stay behind, watching two hours of the same three documentaries looping around endlessly about Maksymilian Faktorowicz (1872-1938), the founder of the famous cosmetic company, developer of modern cosmetics industry and the one who popularized the term “make-up”, better known as Max Factor.
The film started from wherever it was, which was not the beginning, so it took me a while to figure out that Maksmilian was Jewish; a kid who was an apprentice in a pharmacy, a wigs shop, and a barber shop, created an answer to a need others didn’t even realized they had and now can’t live without.
We’re reading a seemingly crazy Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9) about a king and a magician who are trying to win a war they didn’t have to be in, against the Jewish people, by manipulating curses. So strange! If they want to beat the People, why this whole show? Why not just fight? The people are at the end of their 40-year journey; probably tired of everything – the views, the food, the schlep. With some simple tricks, they can probably be overcome.
But that’s not what the confrontation is about. It’s not a simple battle. The Moabites are the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, now facing Abraham’s offspring. The struggle is over the rightful spiritual path, and so it’s done via words. Further: maybe coincidentally, the last war was against the Amorites, led by their king, Sichon, both coming from different words in Hebrew for speech (amar and sach).
Words are our thing. Words – speech – are the bridge between thought and action. We teach that the world was created through 10 sayings; and later, in Sinai, it was 10 “statements” that forever changed the world. The ultimate battle therefore, is not in bow and arrows, but in words. Balak and Bil’am are doing all they can to curse the people, but somehow, curses turn to blessings.
How? Not by anything. No magic potion, no abracadabra, no orchestrated sacrifices. Just by being who we are.
In the beginning, at the creation story, G-d sees his creation and says, it is “good”. What is the meaning of this “good”? there was no moral or ethical judgement regarding the light, earth, plants etc. But rather, like we say, ‘this is a good table’, namely, it fulfills the mission for which is was created. So too nature fulfilled its role perfectly.
So maybe here too: in order to reverse a curse, we need not do anything “special” – in this story, we don’t. When Bil’am eventually says, ma tovu – “how goodly are your tents oh Israel”, the Children of Israel don’t do anything “unusual”. Like Shakespeare who said, “to be or not to be”, they just “are”. Maybe it means – being who we really are, is what can change a curse to a blessing.