On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Balak: Songs of the Soul

This week, Rabbi Jacobs welcomes singer/songwriter Neshama Carlebach. They discuss Parashat Balak¸ which songs speak to their souls, and what it’s like to travel the world as a Jewish singer. Plus, she shares a melody about gratitude and moving forward from pain.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Every week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by a guest, and some weeks he shares his own perspective. But On the Other Hand always provides a modern take on over 2000 years of Jewish wisdom. This week, episode 76, Rabbi Jacobs welcomes Neshama Carlebach to talk about Parashat Balak. They spoke about blessings and curses, they spoke about when to be thankful. And I'm going to be a little more informal here than I usually am. I'm going to break the rules and send you off to her website, NeshamaCarlebach.com, so that you can hear a little bit more about all the beautiful, wonderful work she does. But then, remember to go back to ReformJudaism.org to learn about holidays, rituals, and more.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs: This week we focus our attention on Parashat Balak towards the end of the Book of Numbers, a parashah that has so much in it. So much liturgy, so much challenge to us about those who are enemies, who over time and through some kind of metamorphosis maybe can become actually part of us. So Balak wants to curse the Jewish people, sends Bilaam to do so. But Bilaam, though he tries, cannot utter a curse. It comes out a blessing. In fact, one of the most famous blessings that we know: the beautiful Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov: How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob. We sing it each and every day. It's a liturgical text that lives and breathes and has so many layers.

The great gift of today is that we have with us Neshama Carlebach, who is one of the people whose n’shama, whose spirit, whose soul, expresses not only liturgy, but our yearning for the holy one in the most beautiful way. So, Neshama, welcome.

And can I just start, you know, Mah Tovu is that a prayer, I mean I have so many of the different melodies that you have taught and written and sung. I have a few ideas that you and your aba Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory. Is Mah Tovu one of those texts that gets inside of you and you get inside of it?

Neshama Carlebach: Yes.

RRJ: How?

NC: Yes. You know, it's an amazing thing to say to you, But actually the concept of the tent came alive for me when I discovered this movement. And your speech during the biennial, two biennials ago, where you spoke about doors and the tents and the audacious hospitality and the world being open. I think I took for granted that all the tents were open when I was a part of the Orthodox world. And then once I suddenly was in a situation where I didn't fit, where like, maybe my measurements weren’t equivalent as they were, suddenly there was no tent. And the feeling of “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov,” finding that space. That's a prayer that I, a little bit, owe to you.

RRJ: Well, I love the image of tents, because they are permeable, right? If you're in a tent you hear what's going on outside, you can hear a cry and you can't ignore it. And if you're outside, the beautiful melodies that kind of come wafting from the tent. So it breaks down that inside, outside. And our tent is big, and our tent is so much more alive with you in this tent.

NC: It’s a sukkah, a place where the wind is alive. It's a space where people share their air and they share their breath. I mean, yes. Amen.

RRJ: So, a question about this prayer. Amazingly, that every day, in fact, the first communal prayer that we say is this prayer that was supposed to be a curse, right? It comes out of the mouth of somebody who was first of all, a Pagan seer, right? And what I love is that that is how we begin the day, with the possibility of transformation. Things may start over here in the place of a curse, but somehow our tradition is that we can actually help to transform curse into blessing. We start every day saying, this is possible. Look, these words of mah tovu remind us. Does that resonate? Is there something about your work that is both about transformation and change and turning almost anything into blessing?

NC: I think every day of life for me and for—really for so many of us is about the deflection process. There's so much negativity in our world and there's so much sadness and so many reasons to be sad. So many reasons to get sort of bowled over by our own disappointment in life, by our own insecurities. I think the choice to take the curses that are sort of wafting around us in our tents, and choose the blessing.

To know that God is powerful enough to hold your hand when you choose to walk in the positive light of God, to know that we are we are capable of making our own choices. We can live in the darkness, or we can choose.

Can I share a Torah from Purim? It's like literally a deflective—it just occurred to me. The very first Torah that I learned on my own when my father died. In the book, insight was from Kedushat Levi, from Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, you know, of course, the holiest of the holy. And I learned this Torah, and when it comes to turning negativity to positivity this is my, this is my Torah.

So it says that Haman—I’m totally jumping to holidays, it's fine, it's all good—that Haman left the house of the king, the house of Esther, sameach v’tov lev, happy and with a good heart. And the Ishbitzer says—the Kedushat Levi said, how is it possible to call Haman, the one that we have to wipe out, the enemy of every human being, sameachmeaning happy. Tov lev, to say that there is something, that there is a good heart.

So at that moment, it's an amazing gift. Kedushat Levi said that there are two kinds of lights in the world. It is the light of the bracha and the light of the klala, the light of the curse and the light of the blessing. And at every moment of our lives, we have the opportunity to choose the light or to choose the darkness. And each side is powerful. Not to segue, but the curses that they were offering, yes they became jumbled because God loves us, but the curses are powerful.

At any moment in your life you can choose, do I want to have a curse? Do I want to live in that pull? Or do I want to live in the light? Haman and Esther were two polarized human beings, had nothing in common. Had nothing to take them together. One in the darkness and one in the light. At that moment when Esther, instead of giving Haman darkness, instead of strengthening Haman’s core, Esther gave him love. Esther gave him light. Esther gave him the open tent. Esther gave him everything that he never had before. And at that moment, Haman lost his footing. That moment, Haman lost his force, he lost his place. And at that moment, said the Kedushat Levi, the most evil human being in the world, sameach v’tov lev.

And it doesn't show up in Haman’s lifetime, it says at the end, his great great great great grandchildren were sitting in B’nei Brak, which means that that moment of happiness, of joy, of love, somehow transcended his DNA. It went into the blood. Only because of that moment instead of choosing the darkness, Esther chose to stand in the light and grabbed the energy of Haman. I think this is our Torah. This is our Torah every day, every holiday, every parashah, we are learning this. We are in the ritual only to remind us of our own strength and our own power.

RRJ: What a beautiful Torah, beautiful Torah.

NC: I'm honored to share with you. It’s my fave.

RRJ: It is actually, yes, Purim. It's early, about to be summer, but if we think also about—there’s that incredible g’mar in Sanhedrin 105b, which talks about that Balak, this Moabite King who wants to only curse us, and sends the alarm to do so. He's actually the ancestor of the biblical Ruth, who is the ancestor of King David, the sort of the line of the moshiach, the line of redemption.

So you go from—you talk about this transformation. This ability to turn not just negativity, and you use the case of Haman who is, I mean, he's the quintessential force of not just negativity but harm and aggression that our world, our spiritual lives—not just about, you know, going to temple or, you know, read this book. It's about transforming our lives, about making choices, about turning ourselves and the people around, and the things that are going on in the most beautiful, powerful way.

And I have to say that your music does that for so many of us. It can—like, when Neshama is looking at the siddur or the Torah, like, how does that work that something just calls to you and says, could you find a melody for me? I mean, how do you decide that I'm going to write a piece about mah tovu or achat sh’alti or hineinu or something? What is, for you, that process is like, if you could reflect on it? Maybe it's, you know, a spiritual, almost ineffable process? But could you help us? Because we'd all love to know.

NC: You're touching my heart. It's a vulnerable answer. I haven't written a song in five years. And before that, the songs that I've written have been really—there’s only a few. Very few that I've written. I've been singing my father's songs because they--it's my soul's gift that he's given me. And when you say that it makes me feel inspired because this summer I'm planning--I am going to write something. It is coming out of me, busting out of me. And—but my t’filah, when you say when I look at the prayer book, almost everything affects me. Almost everything.

There’s a space in my heart that--I'm always longing for the new prayer. For the new nigun to come from someplace. And I'm also so open. I’m so open to learning, and so open to the inspiration of the universe and I'm so open to the light. Right now. And you saying that my work does that for you, that is the ultimate strength for me, and I'm hoping that from this conversation some very cool song will come.

RRJ: So I know that when you travel you are also invited into prayer concerts. And you know, I know that your world includes your father's world, and for many of us he was a profound and continues to be a profound influence. But you're also--you're charting, you’re Neshama. You're obviously a part of this incredible lineage, but you are uniquely finding your way. But it's a way that includes music as a way to open a tent. And to also, in that tent, find something that's really at the core of life.

NC: Yes.

RRJ: Is there is there something you might share—because, I just, the people are like, hearing this and going—it’s like being at a swimming pool and you can't go in the water. How about—is there something that you would share? Because I have to believe, wherever people listen to the podcast: in their cars, some are walking on the beach, some are just sitting quietly in their space, some are cooking dinner. But is there some something you might share from the world of spirituality and music and Neshama?

NC: I think, when we're talking about curses and blessings, what occurs to me… The first step through the navigation of the pain, what happens when you are stuck in the darkness. What happens when you're stuck in the space of the curse, and it's jumbled in your own heart and you don't realize that it's a blessing. And it happens. I think it's connection to the light and it's gratitude. It's about, for me--I've had a lot of pain, like all of us. And I think when I reflect on my own pain, now that I've I feel like I've healed enough to look at it and objectively see it, I’m so grateful, I'm so grateful.

Thank you for the pain because it propelled me forward. They say in Havdalah, thank you for the darkness because it reminds us what it feels like to stand in the light. Thank you for the sorrow because now I remember what it feels like to be joyful. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And I'm—this time in my life, I just returned to my work after four years in October. And I'm filled with joy and gratitude. And it's only because I've had, I think, the bravery, the courage to step through this Balak moment, this process. And I'm sending just love and strength to everyone out there. Because can all do it. I’m not special in that way, we all fall, we all down and it's time for us all collectively to give each other the space to fall down and then to get up stronger. Stronger and more whole.

RRJ: Beautiful, beautiful.

NC: Thank you.

RRJ: A melody for friends who are listening?

NC: Yes, a melody. So at this moment this Tov l’hodot is coming to me, maybe because we're talking about gratitude. It says, v’emunatcha baleylot. We’re singing about the chesed in the day. The Kindness in a day. Emunatcha baleylot--it's your belief in us, baleylot, in times when there is only darkness, in the times where we can't see the light, that at that moment God is believing in us more than ever. God is propelling us forward from our pain.

If we can only just believe it, it's like the labor. You’re going to breathe through it, and when you breathe through it you're gonna find yourself on the other end with your birth, with your own rebirth, being born again.

So this is Tov l’hodot.

[singing] Tov l’hodot Adonai

tov l’hodot l’Adonai

ulzamer ulzamer l’shimcha elyon

tov l’hodot l’Adonai

tov l’hodot l’Adonai

tov l’hodot l’Adonai

ulzamer ulzamer l’shimcha elyon

tov l’hodot Adonai

l’hagid baboker chasdecha

l’hagid baboker chasdecha

v’emunatcha baleylot

v’emunatcha baleylot

tov tov l’hodot Adonai

l’hagid baboker chasdecha

l’hagid baboker chasdecha

v’emunatcha baleylot

emunatcha baleylot

tov tov l’hodot Adonai.

RRJ: From Balak to Ruth to David to Neshama. A journey of discovery, a journey of blessing, a journey for each day, a journey of our lives. Thank you, thank you, Neshama Carlebach.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot