Balak: Wherever you go

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like streams that flow…(B’midbar 24:5-6).

My name is mentioned,
whenever you heed
who you truly are,
I will come to you
and bless you:
in the tents
of your migrations
as in your lasting home,
for hidden streams
flow with you
and if you seek their crystal waters
your light will mirror Mine.

In Parashat Balak, we read about the eponymous king of Moab, who becomes alarmed at the Israelite victories so he summons the well-known prophet Bil’am to curse the people of Israel, in the hope of impeding their successful progress. God does not approve but finally acquiesces. En route, Bil’am is blind to an angel blocking his path, while his she-ass sees the heavenly messenger. The angel tells him to go with Balak’s emissaries but to say only the words God puts in his mouth. Balak accompanies Bil’am to three vantage points where they look down on the Israelite encampment. To Balak’s dismay, each time, Bil’am pronounces blessings rather than curses.
The next episode describes how the Israelites succumb to the charms of the daughters of Moab, and are enticed to worship the idol Ba’al Peor. God is incensed and tells Moses to have all the ringleaders publicly impaled. Just then an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman over to his friends in full view of everyone else and then takes her indoors. Pinchas follows them in and impales them both, ending the plague that was raging among the people.

In a commentary on Parashat Balak from 2014, Rabbi Mathew Berkowitz ponders the connection between the first part of the parasha in which Bil’am divines the beauty of the Israelite people and blesses them, and the last part in which the people follow their baser instincts and end up involved in an idolatrous cult which is anathema to all they have learned from their close encounters with God.
Rabbi Berkowitz cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888, Germany):
“The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only the nation itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and Torah. As Midrash Rabbah remarks, after the victorious battle against Sichon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable, enjoyable rest. The district was called ha-shittim (Micah 6:5). It was a wooded, shady region which offered very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert. Rabbinic commentary goes on to explain that wherever the term ha-am, the people, is used it is derogatory; whereas when the term Israel is used, it is praiseworthy. Thus, “the people became complainers” (Numbers 11:1), “the people spoke against God and Moses” (Numbers 21:5), “the people cried that night” (Numbers 14:1), and “how long will this people have no faith in me” (Numbers 14:11). And here too: “the people began to whore after the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1). They began to break away from the moral faithfulness which they observed up until this point.” (Commentary on Numbers, 426)
Rabbi Berkowitz comments that ultimately, it wasn’t the Moabite king, or the seer he employed to curse the Israelite people that brought about their downfall, it was the people themselves who discarded their connection with God and the Torah and its inherent values. Rabbi Berkowitz suggests also that the midrashic description of the people going astray only after they have settled down comfortably (in Shittim), might be teaching us “the importance of occupying ourselves with both profession and continued learning.” He concludes, “And finally, the midrashic distinction between ‘am and Israel is striking. For, in the moment we simply see ourselves as just another people, we open the door to illusion and abandon; we must always strive to be Israel, reflecting the best of God and Torah.”

In her commentary from 2011
Dr Rachel Anisfeld, too considers the juxtaposition of these two episodes in the parasha, wondering why there is not just a happy ending with Bil’am’s blessings. She notes the dissonance between the two stories. Bil’am’s blessings poetically describe Israel’s greatness: “a nation that dwells apart” whose “dwelling places are good”. The Rabbis interpret this as indicating a chaste lifestyle. However, the subsequent episode with Ba’al Pe’or reveals the opposite: the people are not “dwelling apart” but rather joining an immoral debauched cult. Dr Anisfeld notes, “The sense of contrast here is well captured by the name of the idol, Pe’or, a word related to the modern Hebrew word pa’ar, meaning “gap.” Ba’al Pe’or comes to teach us about a gap, the gap between ideal and reality.”
Dr Anisfeld suggests that the two episodes bring different perspectives of Israel. From Bil’am’s vantage point, she says, we have a prophecy, a vision from afar. She says he speaks from on high: “ki merosh tzurim er’enu – As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights.” (B’midbar 23:9) Dr Anisfeld says, “From this lofty view, one can see the people’s great potential and imagine their great future. The Ba’al Pe’or story, on the other hand, speaks of the nitty-gritty daily reality of the people, its earthly struggles with the basest of desires.”
She continues, “The Mount Sinai story tells of a similar dissonance between ideal and reality. A momentous lofty task is given to the people from on high at Mount Sinai, the destiny of achieving “holiness” through the path of the Torah. “I am your God; do not worship any aside from Me,” says God. Meanwhile, down below, at the bottom of the mountain, the people create a molten calf to worship, dancing and eating around their idol. The reality of the people’s concrete deeds forms a sharp contrast to God’s lofty expectations.”
Dr Anisfeld describes these two vistas, the first representing our “idealized potential and destiny, our inspiration, our goal” and the other “the reality of the struggle to put that potential into practice, to actualize the dream in the real world.” She notes that the Torah does not just present us with the dream, but gives us a blueprint to put it into practice. She concludes, “The Ba’al Pe’or story expresses for us the gap between Torah ideal and our lived reality–it highlights the difficulty of our task, the enormity of the bridge we need to construct between heaven and earth.

In a further commentary on Balak from 2011,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser focuses on the verse above, part of the blessing proclaimed by Bil’am, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” which he notes are the first words read by the congregation at every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov; mishkenotecha Yisrael“. These words are the opening of a piyyut (liturgical poem) which continues with verses from the book of Psalms:
As for me, through Your great love, I will enter into Your House. I prostrate myself before Your holy Temple in reverence to You.
O Lord, how I love the refuge of Your House, the place where Your glory dwells.
As for me, I will bow in worship, I will bend the knee before the Lord my maker.
As for me, may my prayer come to You Lord, at a time of favor; God, in Your great love, answer me faithfully with Your redemption
.” (Psalms 5:7; 26:8; 95:6; 69:14)

Reb Jeff notes, “Together, these verses form a poem about being in sacred space. We begin the morning service by reminding ourselves what it means to stand on the sacred ground of God’s House in worship.” But he wonders why that should be necessary. He says that if we are in the synagogue, which is a holy place where a Jewish community comes together to pray, why do we need to proclaim that we are standing in sacred space? He asks, “Aren’t we there already?” And he answers that in the Jewish view, holiness is dependent on intention – kavanah. “Without the right kavanah, a synagogue is nothing more than a fancy building with a closet at one end to store some old scrolls. The building does not become a synagogue until we enter the space with the intention to be in a synagogue.”
So Reb Jeff suggests that in reciting the verses beginning with “Mah Tovu” we aim to sanctify the space in which we stand.” He concludes “This is the secret of Mah Tovu. With a turn of the heart, we place ourselves in sacred space. We discover that we can spend our entire lives living in holiness just by having the intention to be aware of God’s presence.”

And finally, the Sefat Emet teaches that holiness follows Israel wherever they go, as it says: “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” (Shemot 20:21). The Sefat Emet links “…your dwelling places, O Israel,” to the Temple in the Holy Land, but he says that “…your tents, O Jacob,” refers to wherever Jacob dwells in his wanderings outside the Land. He interprets the following verse, “Like streams that flow…” as the wellsprings of Torah that flow with the people wherever they go.

In his book “The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger” Rabbi Arthur Green adds some historical background to this teaching: “Offered in 1896, the very year when Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State was published, the Sefat Emet here as elsewhere in these teachings is seeking to confirm a hasidic point of view on the Holy Land and the Jews’ relationship to it. Ger was in fact less opposed to Zionism than were many other hasidic groups, and a number of its followers were to settle in the Land of Israel between the two world wars. But this sermon makes it clear that while Israel and the land are indeed spiritually bound together, holiness is found in the temporary “tents” of Jacob in Poland and elsewhere as well as in the permanent “dwelling places” of Israel in Jerusalem or on the Temple Mount.”

As noted, the verse cited above, “em>How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…” opens the morning service. As such, it has engendered numerous musical settings. Here is a link to such a piece composed by Abraham Saqui (1824 – 1893).


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