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Parashat Balak — The Failed Curse

Shabbat Shalom Parashat Balak
July 16, 2022

Imagine hearing about a large army that defeated many powerful enemies. This army with its entire nation is marching toward your territory. You know that your army can’t fight them and win. What do you do? If they came to me, I would tell them to make peace, and everyone will win. NO! Balak, the King of Moab was overcome with fear. He consulted with the elders of Moab and Midian and they wanted to hire the best marketing and public relations firm, Balaam and His Donkey. Balak’s plan was to curse the Israelites and hinder their progress with a negative public relations campaign. Balaam was tasked with using powerful words to defeat the perceived threat. The donkey, the only creature in the story with Divine common sense, received a message from God and convinced Balaam his choice of clients was wrong, and the Israelites deserved a blessing not a curse.

If you deal with people, you know the power of blessings and praise. Saying a kind word of support will more than likely get what you want than not. Blessing our children shapes their behaviors more effectively than cursing or negative exchanges. Giving words of encouragement and hope makes better employees and co-workers.

The blessing of Balaam is one of the most powerful and well known in our liturgy. Even though the priestly blessing also appears in the Torah and is said during the Amidah and by the kohanim with great pomp, the Mah Tovu message is more powerful.

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!

What is its power? The priestly says that God will look favorably upon and bless us with peace. The Mah Tovu in six words manages to bring two parallel concepts. First, “tent” and “dwelling places” are two kinds of places where people live. A tent is either a temporary dwelling such as when one camping or wandering in the desert or a temporary conceptual cover to bring together big ideas. The “big tent” covers many ideas but also allows each occupant to live in peace for a common goal. A “dwelling place” is more permanent than a tent. Just like in the desert the Israelites (using the given name of “Ya’akov”) grew in a community ready for nationhood, when they entered the Land of Israel they had more permanent dwelling places (using the God-given name of Israel). Both community (קהילה) and nation (עם) are needed. The community in the desert did have ethics, ritual, laws, and traditions, but only in the Land of Israel did they have a political state with enforceable civil laws.

Mah Tovu is imprinted in my mind because of the hazan and choir musical piece written by Louis Lewandowski and published in Berlin 1882. The piece premiered in 1864 Oranienburgerstrasse Temple of Berlin. Mah Tovu is recited upon entering the sanctuary, before the first blessing of the morning service. Lewandowski was one of the first composer/musicians to serve a synagogue. This piece reflects the pomp and formality of nineteenth-century Berlin reform congregations. Please look on YouTube to hear this powerful piece.

Discussion questions

1. Modern Israel has often said to its critics that it will do whatever needs to be done to protects its interests. Why does it matter what other nations think or say about us?

2. Some people say Balaam is giving a curse with Mah Tovu. What is your opinion?

3. How does a business create a culture of blessing and praise rather than punishment and curses?

About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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