Shrek, Harry Potter & Parshat Balak

Several years ago I sat in a movie theater with my then three-year-old son and my father. I couldn’t get over the fact that all three of us were enjoying the same movie so much. Each of us represents a different generation and therefore has different tastes and different senses of what is funny. But we each enjoyed sitting in that theater for two hours watching the animated feature “Shrek the Third” on the big screen. We each found the movie entertaining, humorous, and memorable. The “Shrek” series has succeeded in entertaining a multi-generational audience through its fun story and animation for the kids that includes puns and humor aimed at adults.

Dreamworks Animation SKG

Just as “Shrek” has encouraged multi-generational enjoyment at the movie theater, the “Harry Potter” book series has fostered multi-generational literary enjoyment and commitment to reading. Author J.K. Rowling has created books that appeal to very young children as well as sophisticated adults. Parents have found as much pleasure in these tales of wizards and sorcerers as their kids. And the bond that is created when parent and child can discuss literature together is priceless.


The three “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” novels share a strong connection in several important ways to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The most striking connection between the animation and the parashah, of course, is the talking donkey in the Torah narrative. The link between “Harry Potter” and the parashah is in the magic, spells, curses, and sorcery.

When Balak, the King of Moab, saw the Israelite victory over the Amorites, he was alarmed. He commissioned Balaam, the world’s most powerful wizard, to put a curse on the Israelites for Balak to drive them out of the land. God tried to dissuade Balaam from cursing the Israelites, a people blessed from the time of the Patriarchs, whose divine blessing cannot be reversed. Balaam refused, but was later asked to reconsider his mission. God allows him to proceed so long as he does what God tells him.

Riding his donkey, Balaam comes upon an angel of God but does not want to stop. The donkey thinks otherwise and is beaten for trying to break for God’s messenger, whereupon God opens the donkey’s mouth for the donkey to verbally berate Balaam. Balaam then offers three oracles of blessing to the Israelites, including the well-known blessing, “How fair are your tents O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.”

There is much to be learned from this narrative. Most notably is the power of God to ensure that the Israelite nation remains blessed no matter how badly someone wants to curse them. What is remarkable about the story, however, is that appeal it has to both young and old. The basic story of a magician riding a talking donkey who is hired to curse a people seems to be taken right from a fairy tale. However, the deeper concept (the subtext) of the story is a powerful theological statement about the omnipotence of God and the eternally blessed nature of the people Israel.

In the brilliance of the Torah, the narrative captivates diverse generations just as the “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” series do. There is truly appeal for everyone. This is a lesson for us. We need to make Torah study in particular and Judaism in general attractive to young and old alike. We do this with our Passover seders each year and we should strive to do it year round.

There are “Shivim Panim LeTorah” (seventy faces of the Torah) meaning that the Torah can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. This also means that there are enough ways to make the Torah accessible and captivating to all ages. Some stories of the Torah might already be written as exciting narratives for young people as well as adults, such as the Flood, the tales of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the Exodus. Some, like the Balak narrative, might even have all the elements of a fantasy. For those sections of the Torah that do not automatically present themselves as intriguing for young people, it is up to the adults to translate the text into exciting drama. Through midrash, many texts have already come to life for our youth.

If you haven’t already seen the Shrek movies, go see them. And even if you’ve seen them, I encourage you to see them again with your children and/or grandchildren so that we may all seek out the multi-generational appeal of Talmud Torah. When the different generations spend time being entertained and learning together, in the words of our Torah, our people and dwellings will truly be blessed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Do-overs and Learning From Mistakes

This is my contribution to the HuffPost Religion’s Omer Liveblog, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot:

“The broken tablets were put with the new ones into the Ark.” –Talmud, Menachot 99a

What can we learn from the fact that Moses put the broken tablets into the Ark along with the new tablets? We move on from our mistakes, but we also take the lessons along with us.

In helping to form a new nation, Moses made many mistakes. He overreacted when he saw the people sinning before God by dancing around the Golden Calf, and he threw the tablets to the ground. Forty days of hard work were lost.

As a leader, Moses owned his inability to handle the situation calmly. He did a “do-over” and received new commandments, but the experience of breaking the tablets wouldn’t be erased from memory. It was part of his narrative as a leader and part of the historical record of the Israelites. The broken tablets would endure alongside the new ones.

We all make mistakes on the way toward our goal. As a business owner and entrepreneur, there is a story upon which I often reflect that was shared with me by Josh Linkner. Everyone is familiar with WD-40, the water-displacing spray that was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, but was later found to have numerous household uses. Many people, however, don’t realize that WD-40 stands for “water displacement 40th attempt.” It was the inventor’s 40th attempt at a successful product. Norm Larsen had 39 do-overs before finding success. By naming his product WD-40 he kept the first 39 attempts with him as a lesson, just as Moses preserved the broken tablets as a reminder.

May we all make mistakes and then remember those mistakes as lessons as we achieve our goals.

This is a reflection on the fourth day of the Omer. Join the conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Re’eh – Giving Blessings Not Curses

It has become very common for businesses and organizations to send out weekly email messages to their list of subscribers. There is nothing unusual about that. But I’ve noticed an increasing number of individuals who have begun to share their own wisdom and commentary on the issues of the day with their friends and family.

Each week, I receive many weekly newsletters that arrive in my email inbox from synagogues across the country and Israel, but I’ve also begun to receive weekly email messages from individuals. Like the synagogue newsletters, these weekly missives from individuals include some insights about the weekly Torah portion. These individuals have realized that through email they have developed their own pulpit from which to disseminate information and offer their teaching. Through word-of-mouth, they have amassed a following through their distribution list.

Sometimes these individuals intentionally comment on the weekly Torah portion and other times they do so coincidentally. I noticed that the latter was the case this week when I received Josh Linkner’s weekly message. The serial entrepreneur and motivational business speaker from Detroit titled his weekly email “Caught in the Act”.  The essence of his message is that it’s better to bless someone than to curse them. Linkner might not have realized that this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, is all about blessings and curses. He writes:

Bosses, parents, teachers, clergy and government officials are well trained to catch you doing something wrong. There are elaborate systems for checks and balances, controls and consequences. It’s apparently very important to catch the mischievous child or the wayward employee in the act of disobedience.

With so much effort spent catching people doing something wrong, it’s time to start catching each other doing something right.

In our society, wide spread labeling is an insidious force that robs individuals of achieving their true potential. When a parent tells a child they are average, slow, or stupid, these sharp words become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the erroneous labels are internalized. When a boss repeatedly lashes out at a team member pointing out their every flaw, confidence becomes shattered and performance plummets.

The good news is that labeling can work the other way too. Catch a team member in the act of delivering great work, and you’ll inject her with confidence and energy. Label a colleague a rock-star, and they’ll kick out the work version of a Grammy.

This week, let’s all flip the poison of negative labeling, and catch each other and ourselves in the act – in the act of doing things right. These new, positive labels will tip the scales in favor of results, momentum, and overall achievement.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” The question is which one we will choose. In the Torah’s case, the contextual understanding of the text is that God sets forth a blessing and a curse in front of us and we are to decide which one we’ll receive. Another way of understanding the text, however, is that we all have the ability to choose to bless others or to curse them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul, which is a time of deep reflection and introspection for members of the Jewish faith as we prepare for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I hope we will all take Josh Linkner’s message to heart during this season.

When faced with offering a blessing or a curse to someone I encourage you to remember what my mother taught me from a very young age: “You get more bees with honey.” Blessing others with kind words, motivational encouragement and compliments will lead to you feeling blessed as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Perfection is Hard to Come By

While I often write about sports on this blog, I have always done so through a Jewish perspective. In fact, everything I write on this blog I write through a Jewish perspective.

So, why am I writing about last night’s Detroit Tigers baseball game in which pitcher Armando Galarraga had a perfect game until the 9th inning with two outs when 1st base umpire Jim Joyce blew an obvious call? Galarraga isn’t Jewish and neither is Jim Joyce. And yet, last night in my hometown of Detroit, as I watched Galarraga’s perfect game ended by a human error and all the emotional reactions to it, I found the entire episode to be full of Jewish lessons.

Perfect games in baseball are a rarity. (It is unusual that Galarraga’s would have been the third perfect game this season and we’re only a few days into June.) In Judaism, we understand that perfection is hard to come by. We’re taught that God created an imperfect world. The concept of Tikkun Olam urges us to be active participants in helping make the world perfect for future generations. But since no human is completely perfect, mistakes are made that constantly keep the world from being in perfect harmony. Umpire Jim Joyce made a mistake last night. His error had significant implications for another human being (Galarraga), but it also demonstrates that in our pursuit of perfection there will always be actions beyond our control that will keep us from attaining our goal.

The fact that Jim Joyce was so quick to admit his error and then apologize directly to Galarraga should not go unnoticed. Like every other Tigers fan, and indeed like any baseball fan, I was torn apart watching Jim Joyce ruin Galarraga’s perfect game last night. However, the umpire acted like a mensch in his contrition and apology. The Jewish concept of teshuvah (repentance) was brought to mind as Joyce’s admission was played repeatedly on ESPN Sportcenter. He admitted that he blew the call without any qualification (something umpires and referees rarely do) and then he admitted that he “just cost that kid a perfect game.”

There has already been much discussion and debate about whether baseball commissioner Bud Selig should reverse the call and give Galarraga the perfect game that he deserves, and there will be much more on this topic in the days to come. This will also serve as a platform for those who wish to see instant reply brought into Major League Baseball.

But what I wish to focus on is what transpired immediately after the umpire’s error. Galarraga kept his composure. He didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t lose his temper and push the umpire. He maintained his cool. After the game, he just shook his head and explained that he’d eventually tell his kids that he threw a perfect game on that night even if the record books didn’t record it that way. In an era in which we see professional athletes lie and cheat (see: the Steroid Scandal), get in opponents’ faces and taunt them, and hurl profanities at umpires and referees, it was refreshing to see Galarraga take the umpire’s mistake like a man — or better yet, as a mensch.

And the fact that Umpire Jim Joyce wasted no time after the game in asking to see Galarraga to offer his deepest apologies also serves as a good example for our children. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it and offer your genuine forgiveness (mechila in Hebrew) no matter how severe the offense.

Whether Bud Selig does the right thing and reverses the bad call or not, this episode in one of the American Pastime’s greatest games will go down in history as an example of how human error makes perfection hard to come by… and why owning up to our mistakes and asking for forgiveness is such a noble deed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller