I have a confession. As a rabbi, I look at the liturgy this generation inherited, and I see words that evoke God as father or king, such as we sing in the most beloved of High Holy Day melody, Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King"). Even leaving aside modern sensibilities about gender – is God really male? – these images evoke a God of authority first and foremost. They imply a hierarchy that maybe we remember from our own parents, or that we ourselves have used as parents. Invoking that authority we demand behavior with the catch phrase: "Because I said so."
Sometimes "Because I said so" can be comforting: it tells us what's supposedly "right" and "wrong" without doubt, and sometimes clarity of roles and result are needed for health, safety and teaching. At other times, "Because I said so" can disempower and belittle. Ask any young adult how he or she feels hearing "Because I say so" – or remember that feeling yourself. Is that feeling holy? Or consider an adult who, by dint of supposed authority or elder status, becomes implacable: they might pout, stomp and plead, "Because I said so."
So too in this week's Torah portion, which features multiple levels of "Because I said so." Balak, king of Midian, tells his priest Balaam to curse the traveling Jews by invoking his monarchical authority ("because I said so"). Balaam, seemingly a recluse in the wilderness, instead defers to “his God,” who just happens to be the God of the Hebrews too, and refuses to curse the people. Balak begs and even offers riches, but then God comes to Balaam and gives permission to Balaam to travel towards the traveling Israelites but not necessarily to curse ("because I" – now God – "said so"). Balaam saddles up his ass, who appears to be his only colleague, and goes to meet King Balak. In the end, the words that come from the deeply conflicted Balaam’s mouth are a blessing and not a curse.
"Because I said so" can be confusing, roiling and more. Religion – or at least the religion many of us were raised with – features much of this "because I said so" sense. But I find that my relationship with God is evolving. A skeptic might say God has been demoted from unquestionable authority to partner. For me, that's as it should be – not just a partner but a loving partner. In that partnership, I find inspiration and solace, courage and caring.
This approach also is the Jewish mystical path, and they had a most profound insight: God is lover, helper and spouse in a relationship of discussion, commission and growth. Not "because I said so" but "because I love you, and because you love me."
What would it mean for us to have a collegial loving relationship with God? Could we make Saturday a day of rest to have time to connect with our beloved rather than a day to desist from work "because God says so" – Sabbath as date night? Could we extend loving kindness to strangers, not because we are directed but because our own relationships will improve as we practice compassion?
Poor Balaam, prophet and ping pong ball – batted about by duty to God and a king who commanded him “because I said so.” Perhaps this story is a cautionary tale that invites us to a deeper connection with God, one that can be realized through relationship with God and with God's best and most flawed creation – other people.
Let's not be like Balaam. Get off your ass and get into healthy working relationships with God’s other creations – family, friends and communities. And please, don’t just do it because I said so.
R’ Evan Krame