Balak, Dead50, and Frederick Douglass

The U.S. was in a “lingering period of childhood,” said Frederick Douglass on the occasion of Independence Day in 1852. “Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.”

At this point, we’ve got another 163 years on us, and many a patriot’s heart is indeed sadder, reformers’ brows heavier: Too many of Douglass’ words still ring true today, however much has changed since 1852; for too many U.S. citizens, a day celebrating U.S. ideals is one “that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Meanwhile, we are about the enter Shabbat Balak, with a fantastical Torah reading that centers around strange visions, an outside prophet’s view of an inchoate nation, and a people’s struggle with diversity.

In addition, tonight begins the final series of Fare Thee Well concerts, prompting many a meditation on youth, age, and the length of the strange trips we’re on as individuals and communities.

Surprised and Subverted

Santa Monica, June 27. Photo: Dave Vann, DG50
Santa Monica, June 27. Photo: Dave Vann, DG50

Sue Levi Elwell says this week’s Torah portion offers a challenge the “to move beyond the narrow, dichotomous thinking that blinded Balak and Balaam.”

Lori Lefkovitz also discusses boundary-crossing elements in the Balak story. She notes, however, that, as the portion closes, “the story becomes grimly realistic…It is as if the reading’s conclusion aims to reverse its earlier effects…refusing permission to cross ethnic or sexual boundaries.”

“But it is too late,” Lefkovitz concludes. “This counter text has worked its magic, surprised our expectations, and subverted categories…”

The Dead, and the communities that grew up around them, have certainly done their part over the decades to surprise and subvert. And the Fare Thee Well tour shows us musicians whose ages span decades working together to create something simultaneously old and new.

Maybe, just maybe, this strange confluence of Independence, Balak and Dead50 can prompt some kind of new thinking and acting that will allow us to re-capture the hope of our youth, with maybe a little bit of age’s wisdom.

There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny?
— from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass
(Read his whole speech here…even if you’ve read it before.)

Are we ready to open our tents and our hearts to those who wish to dream — and then to build sacred communities that not only tolerate diversity and difference but also celebrate them?
— Sue Levi Elwell


Lefkovitz, Lori. “Between Beast and Angel: The Queer, Fabulous Self,” IN Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible. Drinkwater, Lesser, Shneer, eds. NY: New York University, 2009, pp.212-215.

Levi Elwell, Sue. Contemporary Reflection on Balak in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp.956-957.

See also, “How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions” — also available on

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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