Balak: Good Tents

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

This week the Moabite king Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. Bilaam’s mission, interrupted by an angel and a talking donkey, ends when his planned curse turns into a blessing for the camp of Israel.

Hello from the humid but not unpleasant Hudson Valley! This week we learn that curses can be turned into blessings: when Bilaam goes to a mountain to curse the Israelites below, he instead blesses and praises them:

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water . . . . ”     (Bamidbar/Numbers 24:5-7)

Commentators have asked what the big deal is with nice tents and dwellings: Rashi quotes an earlier texts which says that Bilaam saw all the tents of the Israelites arranged for maximum privacy, which made the camp itself “good,” in the sense of morally and socially upright. Hirsch, on the other hand, thinks that the tents and dwellings are the houses of prayer and study which Israel establishes, and this interpretation, while anachronistic, fits with the liturgical use of the first line, above, at the beginning of the morning prayer service. That is- if the “tents” and “dwelling places” are really our synagogues and schools, then it makes perfect sense, when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, to say, hey, this is a good thing, I’m grateful to be here. (That is something that Mr. Not-So-Morning-Person writing this needs to remember!)

On the other hand, Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier sources, also gives us something to think about, because Rashi seems to say that the Bilaam blessed the camp of Israel because they were praiseworthy- that is, it wasn’t just that God opened Bilaam’s mouth in a certain way, but he was also moved by what he saw before him. In other words, if you want to be blessed, act in ways that bring blessing upon yourself ! This, too, is a powerful kavanna, or focus, before our morning spiritual disciplines, because it reframes the petitions we make, turning them into opportunities to think about the goodness and peace that we create (or don’t) as we go about the day.

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov. . . . . “How good are your tents, Jacob!,” can be a call to gratitude, if we follow Rashi, or a call to make ourselves worthy of blessing, if we follow Hirsch, but in either case, it’s also worth noting that these words, in the first few pages of our prayerbook, are spoken by one of the famous non-Israelites of the Torah. Perhaps those who turned this verse from scripture into prayer also wanted us to realizing something about the universality of spiritual experiences: being moved to utter a blessing upon seeing wondrous goodness is something for which anyone might hope. We pray a Jewish liturgy- that’s our heritage, our path, and our discipline- but prayer itself doesn’t belong to one religion or spiritual path. It is the “universal port” to connect to our Source- and perhaps that’s one of the most important lessons this brief verse teaches us bright and early in the morning.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- for an interesting exploration of the history of the “Mah tovu” prayer, go here, and for a guide to pronouncing it and a melody which fits the words, go here.

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