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Balak: A Right-Sizing Blessing, by Fred Scherlinder Dobb

הִנֵּ֥ה בָרֵ֖ךְ לָקָ֑חְתִּי וּבֵרֵ֖ךְ וְלֹ֥א אֲשִׁיבֶֽנָּה׃

“Behold, I’m bidden to bless:  And God has blessed; I cannot / will not reverse it.” (Numbers 23:20)

What’s a blessing, anyway?!  The root bet-resh-khaf, in biblical context, can mean gifting, predicting, describing, cursing, magnifying, and more.  That last idea, ‘enlargement,’ often works best – including when King Balak sends Bilaam to curse the Israelites, but feeling the Divine flow, this prophet-for-hire only blesses.  Bilaam’s beautiful blessing is so enlarging, it opens our morning liturgy: מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל — “how good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel!” (24:5).

Our ancestors traveled light, leaving little trace; their tents were simple and portable.  Bilaam’s “blessing” wasn’t about physical enlargement, then, but spiritual uplift.  Just the blessing we need today!  A blessing which we already have, in the form of shabbat, and shabbaton/shmita.  Turning every seventh day from concrete things to spiritual ideals, Shabbat undergirds Judaism’s eco-ethos.  And every seventh year, shmita’s “radical release” confirms that ethic.

Modernity conflated blessing with expansion, and it’s killing us, since nothing corporeal can grow indefinitely.  Not organisms, or populations; things, or economies.  Only the spiritual realm allows for continual growth.  Our entire way of life must therefore incorporate shabbat and shmita values, setting limits.  It must be sufficiently small-scale, resilient, and relational to handle periodic disruptions: cessation of commercial agriculture, even pandemics.  We’re “bidden to bless” (23:20l’dor vador, intergenerationally.  Shmita must thus be our design principle – an asymptote toward which we bend our arcs; a consciousness to cultivate.  Living la vida shmita will help us survive, and thrive, through anything.  What’s more enlarging than that?!

In shmita, as in our ethical mussar tradition, the goal is balance.  That includes anavah, humility, understood as taking up just the right amount of space.  The point transcends the dichotomy of shrinkage (from a too-large footprint) versus expansion (from gifts remaining hidden); it’s about right-sizing.  Striking that balance, more than “enlarging” alone, is the real blessing.  And shmita is Torah’s great right-sizer.  We flourish for the long-term when we periodically prune ourselves, and grow intentionally – when our structures and our norms make room for the human and non-human other (Ex. 23:11), the disadvantaged and empowered (Lev. 25:6), alike.  As God self-contracted (m’tzamtzem) to enable relationship with the rest of Creation, we too expand our experience when we do tzimtzum and right-size, shmita-size, ourselves.

Only on his third try, finally seeing all our ancestors “encamped tribe by tribe” (Num. 24:2), came Bilaam’s most enduring blessing.  From Mount Pe’or he saw a dozen interconnected micro-communities, “tribe-by-tribe” — each at a relational and human scale where connections can abound, resources be shared, individuals celebrated, and holiness abide.  Mah tovu (Num. 24:5), indeed:  How good, how sustainable, are such shmita-conforming dwelling places!

What’s a blessing, anyway?  Shmita is!  We mustn’t reverse it; rather, let’s magnify it.  Motivated by its morals to curb our carbon and flatten our footprint, Shmita-consciousness will enlarge us all.


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Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb has helped make “shmita” an English word at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD (a Shmita Project partner synagogue).  He also chairs the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and serves on the national board of Interfaith Power and Light.  Fred lives in Washington DC with his wife Minna, one child now in her third shmita cycle, and one well into his second. 

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