Commentary on Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
In the midst of our book of wandering, we read of how a Moabite sovereign engages a seer from a distant land in the hopes of cursing and thus defeating the Israelites. In the central irony of a fanciful tale that opens with “[He] saw” (22:2), neither King Balak nor his hireling Balaam are able to “see” the Israelites. Balaam and Balak position and re-position themselves in an attempt to assess the multitude that “hides the earth from view” (22:5). The two travel from point to point without gaining the perspective they seek.
Only when the Holy One opens his eyes can Balaam see more than a portion of the people he has been sent to curse. He sees the tents that are the homes and the gathering places of the women, children, and men who live as a community marked by care and mutual respect. Seemingly stunned by his newfound perspective on the Israelite compound, Balaam describes the people in language that evokes Eden: “Like palm-groves that stretch out / like gardens beside a river / like aloes planted by God / like cedars beside the water / Their boughs drip with moisture / their roots have abundant water” (24:6-7).
Have the eyes of the desert diviner cleared sufficiently so that he can see a people who one day would have the power to make the desert bloom? Do his words reflect dreams of cities with palm-lined boulevards and garden neighborhoods that would, in the future, challenge and transform the arid landscape?
For a moment, Balaam sees a community as it can be: a society of mutual dependence and trust, a community where each person is treated with dignity, and he exclaims: Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov / mishk’notecha, Yisrael (“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel”; 24:5). But when Balaam extends his description, the utopian vision fades, and the people become just like any other who seek domination over their foes. He concludes, “Blessed are they who bless you, / Accursed they who curse you!” (24:9).
As in the beginning of this portion, the world is divided into two: those who seek to maintain power,
and those who attempt to usurp it–the victors and the vanquished, the blessed and the cursed.
The concluding story of this portion (25:1-9) illustrates the tragedy of seeing the world dichotomized in this way.
Exhausted from a journey that seems to have no end, the Israelite men forget who they are. They forget their privileged relationship with the One who brought them out of slavery. Balaam’s recognition of Israel’s goodness has become part of our liturgy known as the Mah tovu (literally “how good are”): Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov / mishk’notecba, Yisrael (“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!”).
The rabbis who created our liturgy recognized the power of this sentence, and so they intentionally positioned it as the opening of a daily prayer sequence that fixes the individual in the context of the community of Israel. They expand Balaam’s blessing with four verses from Psalms written in the first person. In so doing, they enable each worshipper to claim a place as a member of the collective.
I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house;
I bow down in awe at Your holy temple (Psalm 5:8).
“God, I love Your temple abode,
The dwelling-place of Your glory (Psalm 26:8).
Let me bow down and kneel before God my maker (Psalm 95:6).
As for me, may my prayer come to You, O God”
At a favorable moment;
in Your abundant faithfulness,
Answer me with Your sure deliverance (Psalm 69:14).
With these phrases, the rabbis transform Balaam’s God of war into a God of chesed (lovingkindness), and each Jew who utters these words becomes the prayer. In the parashah, Balaam follows his original utterance of the verse with two descriptions of Israel: an Israel that lives in a lush and verdant world, and a nation that is victorious against enemies.
But Balaam’s utterance is also incomplete, which is why our liturgy expands it–and also shifts the focus to the relationship of the individual with God.
I propose a third reading, one that returns to the evocation of the community as a source of power and that extends it, connecting the people with God and with their unique challenge. Consider the following combination of 24:5 with the words from the book of Isaiah:
How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob,
Your dwelling places, 0 Israel! (24:5)
I, the Holy One, have called you in righteousness,
and taken you by the hand.
I am the One who created you
and made you a covenant people,
a light to the nations:
to open eyes that are blind,
to bring the captive out of confinement (Isaiah 42:6-7).
This clear challenge invites us to move beyond the narrow, dichotomous thinking that blinded Balak and Balaam in this portion. These verses from Isaiah anticipate-and fulfill-the subsequent prophetic call about tents and dwellings: “Enlarge the space for your tent (oholech); / do not spare the canvas for your dwelling-place (mishk’notayich)” (Isaiah 54:2).
Here the prophet urges Jerusalem–personified as a woman–to widen her tent with joy and make room for the multitudes who will enter the capital city. An expanded tent in a gracious and open city reflects the utopian and achievable goal of moving beyond oppositional concepts of native/stranger, friend/foe, chosen/rejected, male/female.
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? Can we move beyond narrow, divisive definitions and descriptions that are no longer useful? Might we transform our communities by welcoming those who come into our houses of worship with words that describe what our community can be? When our dwelling places become sanctuaries for all seekers of peace and justice, when our homes welcome all who no longer objectify the other, then we can truthfully declare, Mah tovu–how good, how fair, are our tents.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Pronounced: YAH-kove or YAH-ah-kove, Origin: Hebrew, Jacob, one of the Torah’s three patriarchs.