Parashat Balak

This week’s Torah portion is one of those gems — a hapless king, a grand mission, a bumbling prophet. There’s even a talking donkey. The whole thing has a Princess Bride-like quality to it; with perhaps a touch of Shrek. And words we find toward the culmination of the story have made their way into our daily liturgy, so that whenever we gather for worship we maintain a connection to this Torah portion and its bold prophecy.

Balak, king of Moab, hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. After Balaam’s donkey does his part to thwart the mission (and I do totally imagine him doing so sounding like Eddie Murphy), Balak succeeds in taking Balaam to an overlook where he can see a portion of the Israelite encampment. But when Balaam opens his mouth to pronounce the curse he’s been hired to deliver, lo and behold, words of blessing emerge instead. So Balak tries again, taking Balaam to a different spot. “Maybe it’s the view that was the problem,” Balak reasons — “try here.” But when Balaam begins to speak this second time, his proclamation is even worse — blessings for the Israelites, and now curses for those who seek their harm, as well. “Stop, just stop!” Balak says, now doubting the wisdom of this great plan. And then finally, from yet another overlook where Balaam can see the entire encampment of Israelites, his “curse” comes out as the famous phrase: 

“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael — 

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” 

Clearly it’s a blessing, as has been everything that’s come out of Balaam’s mouth. But what is the prophecy saying? What does that one little word “good,” so key to the blessing, mean? Perhaps if we look to other places where we see the word tov in our sacred texts, we might gain a better understanding.

So let’s begin with Psalms (133:1) — much like Mah Tovu, another popular opening song:

“Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — 

How good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together.”

As the Jewish Study Bible teaches, we often think of this verse as a reference to brotherly harmony in a broad, general sense; the good feeling of a group of people — any people — coming together in a warm and joyful spirit. But the verse actual has a very specific context: Against the backdrop of a deep civil divide in ancient Israel, it’s “a hope for the reunification of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.” It’s a call for two sides — two factions, a split nation — to come together. 

Ordinarily, this is where I would draw parallels between the ancient text and our own day. But there are just too many examples from which to draw, too many ways in which we each feel the divisiveness of our time. So suffice it to say: Is there any doubt we could desperately use a prophecy for this kind of restorative, healing goodness right now?

Of course, we encounter the word tov much earlier than Psalms in our biblical text; we find it throughout the very first story of the very first book of Torah — the story of Creation —  culminating in Genesis 1:31:

“Vayar Elohim et-kol Asher asah v’hinei tov m’od — 

God saw all that God had made and, behold, it was very good.”

Here “good” might mean “beautiful” or “pleasing,” but more precisely it seems to indicate “everything working the way it was meant to.” We get a picture of God surveying all that has been created, and then consulting the blue prints while declaring “tov” — everything is in fine working order.

Nathan Albert, a pastor and storyteller, writes: “Our call as people of God is to be a community where everything is good, beautiful, and working the way it was created to. We are to be tov in a world that desperately needs to get a glimpse of tov; of heaven and earth. … We are to be a community that looks like God. A community where all people have their needs met, where there is no inequality, where injustice cannot have its way, where forgiveness, peace, and joy reign, where mercy always supersedes judgment, and where people lay down their lives for each other. We are to be a community that is so peculiar we actually look a little like heaven on earth; a community where everything and everyone is tov.”

What a beautiful thing it would be if this prophecy of goodness, too, came true.

And both of these ideas of tov, of goodness, seem to fit with what the many rabbis and sages have written about our verse in the prophecy of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak (Numbers 24:5). Once again:

“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael — 

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

What exactly does Balaam see when he ascends to a lookout one last time and can finally take in the entire span of the Israelite camp? A community living close together, the sages say, in more than just physical proximity. A nation that clearly cares for one another, protects each other. And — observing the fact that no single tent opening apparently looked into the sightline of another tent opening — a community that respected one another, as well. A community of goodness, worthy of blessing indeed.

Like many of you, I imagine, I’ve been struggling with the lack of this kind of goodness in our community — in our society, in our country — as of late. As I’ve found myself preparing for the Fourth of July this coming week, and an All American, patriotic Shabbat at KKBE next weekend, those descriptors haven’t felt good. It pains me to say it, but America just hasn’t felt like something worth celebrating right now. But then I reread a story, written by Ede in New Mexico a couple of years ago:

Yesterday, my daughter, Karly, had a tough day—Ede wrote. She learned that she had just lost her job. It was a new role as a project lead and she was very excited about it. Due to funding cutbacks, however, the grant money that she had been promised had to be taken back by the state. So, too, Karly’s position. She was devastated.

But life goes merrily along its way and so we must do what we must do. And off Karly went to get groceries.

A short note about my girl here. From day one, Karly has been the kind of human that has never met a stranger. She is Native American and Anglo. She has deep brown/black eyes and dark brown hair (well, most of the time—she is twenty-five; it gets colored quite often). But there is something about her that is approachable, attractive, and friendly. People of all kinds talk to her, randomly, often, and about all kinds of things, young and old.

Yesterday, as she approached the store, there was a gentleman outside the store, who was cold and hungry, who asked her for money to get some food. Karly told him she wouldn’t give him money, but she would be happy to buy him something to eat. She didn’t say anything to him about the fact that she had carefully planned out her shopping list so that she could get everything she needed with the cash she had just withdrawn from the credit union. Instead, she asked him what he would like to eat. 

He said it would be really nice to have a rotisserie chicken since it was already cooked and hot; it was so cold outside. Karly said she would be right back and went in to buy his chicken. When she came back out, she gave him the food. She also went over to her car and got out a coat and gave it to him. She then went back into the store to do her shopping.

She carefully went through the store checking off each item on her list and adding everything up so she did not go over the total dollar amount she had in cash. As she proceeded to the checkout lane and was getting ready to cash out, the gentleman behind her in line told her he was going to pay for her groceries.

She was completely caught off guard.

He told her he had seen her act of generosity and kindness to the man in front of the store and he wanted to pay it forward by buying her groceries. He insisted and paid for everything.

This, Ede writes, is the America I choose.

Where we craft lives of service toward each other with simple acts of grace and dignity. A meal and a warm coat. An acknowledgment of a kindness.

In the rumble of our differences there are all manner of similarities, all manner of commonalities. All we have to do is show up and pay attention. We only lose if we give up. 

This is the America I choose, not red or blue, but a rainbow of possibility.

As I look ahead to the patriotic commemorations of the coming week, this is the America I choose to celebrate, as well. To be sure, we have a lot of work to do to expose and magnify her goodness. One thing we know tov can never mean — whether in regards to our country, the ancient Israelite nation, or anyone — we know it can never mean perfect. 

“What is the difference between true and false prophets,” asks Toledot Yaakov Yosef, who considered Balaam to be a false prophet. “True prophets in most cases come to rebuke the people. They point out the blemishes and the deficiencies of the people and seek to have them mend their ways. False prophets tell the people how wonderful they are, and that there is nothing that needs to be rectified. True lovers of their people, though, are the true prophets.” Victor Frankel wrote: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Well, in that case, I guess the good news is the stage is set and conditions are ripe. We have tension. We have striving and struggling. There are many ways in which we need to mend and repair our collective ways. This Fourth of July and throughout the coming weeks and months, may we create the harmony of “Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im…”. May we demonstrate the kindness and mutual care of “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…”. And may the society, the country, we restore with true patriotism cause God to look down upon us and say once again of these United States of America: “V’hinei tov m’od.”, 1/22/13

Pantsuit Nation, Libby Chamberlain (editor), pp. 240-241 (adapted).


A prayer for our country.

1,995 minors seeking safety and asylum in this country were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31 of this year, a period of 6 weeks — and 2 weeks have passed since then.

1,940 adults were separated from their children, in this country, during the same period.

Years ago, during a visit to Yad Vashem — not my first visit to Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, but my first as a parent — I stood utterly devastated in front of a small display of toys and cards with which children were sent on trains as part of the Kindertransport — these small mementos their only enduring connection to the safety and loving embrace of their families.

I put myself in the shoes of a parent and cried. How could one make the impossible choice of sending their child away? I imagined selecting a single toy to accompany my son, and just dissolved in tears. Then I put myself in the shoes of a child and cried. How could a young child even remotely grasp what was happening, the desperation of a parent who would make such a choice? Would they even be aware that a choice had been made?

Never, while I stood there, did it even occur to me to consider that the shoes I might someday wear would be those of a citizen in a country where the inhumane practice of forcibly separating parents and children — asylum-seeking refugees — would be the sanctioned law of the land. Like so many in our country tonight, I face this unconscionable reality… and I cry.

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t even come close to touching the desperate urgency of this moment. But this is the time in our service when we pray for our congregation, our community, and our nation — and this is the space to which we come to recalibrate our moral compass. And so we must pray:

On this Shabbat of Father’s Day Weekend — still feeling the echoes of Mother’s Day celebrations, as well — may the leaders of our nation speedily and clearly see the unequivocal error of their ways. Let the rising indignation of religious communities throughout our country crescendo into a singular, resolute voice declaring Your sacred command — the most repeated in Scripture — “Do not wrong a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Indeed, as long as children are being torn from their parents and parents left to anguish over the wellbeing of their children, it would seem we are all still in Egypt.

Having desperately lost our way, this Shabbat may we speedily find our way back to being a Promised Land.

And let us say: Amen.