Posted on July 15, 2022 by Harold Levin
Each Shabbat morning as we begin our worship, we sing the words Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkanotecha Israel:
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 יהוה,
Like cedars beside the water;
Their boughs drip with moisture,
Their roots have abundant water.
Their ruler shall rise above Agag,
Their sovereignty shall be exalted.
God who freed them from Egypt
Is for them like the horns. of the wild ox.
They shall devour enemy nations,
Crush their bones,
And smash their arrows.
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like a lioness who dares rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you!
These words can be found in this week’s parsha, Balak, the seventh chapter of the Book of Numbers. While one might imagine that the Ma Tovu was created by a famous hero of the Torah, it may be a surprise to many to learn that they were first spoken by Balaam, better known as a prophet for hire. He was called in to help Balak, the leader of the Moabites, to place a curse upon the people of Israel. Balak feared their large numbers and was looking for a way to weaken them and gain control of their land. Balaam had a reputation of doing whatever was asked of him if you paid him enough.
Balaam made three attempts to curse the Israelites but, each time, something stopped him. Finally, a voice spoke to him which came from his donkey and convinced him to bless rather than curse the people. Balaam was the only one who could hear her speak and beat her in frustration. In front of the donkey, God had a placed a messenger whose voice was loud and clear but could not be seen.
Eventually, Balaam ran out of curses and bestowed a final blessing. He called together Balak and all the other territorial kings and warned them of their impending death and destruction. Feeling totally defeated and embarrassed by his inability to meet Balak’s demands, Balaam advised them to seduce the Jewish men with Midianite women and leave it for God to punish them.
This is an intriguing story, one which leaves plenty of room for discussion. Was the hero Balaam or was he playing on both sides of the fence? Was he most interested in the riches which Balak would bestow upon him or was he actually not interested in killing of the people of Israel? Perhaps, Balaam feared God more than he did the Moabites but, if that was the case, why would he of advised the kings on what to do after he left the scene? Did he really think that God would allow the men of Israel to fall to the Moabites?
There are many commentaries which deal with the Ma Tovu and its roots, significance, and meanings. Teshuvot Maharsal observed that he started his worship with the words “Va ani be-rov hazdeka” as he could not bring himself to start with Ma Tovu as Balaam intended it as a curse and he could not see beginning prayer with a curse. How, he asked, could we recite the words of a hired enemy?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev wrote the Ma Tovu could be seen as the sages pushing us to set aside time each day for the study of Torah. He suggested that the message could be to treat one’s job as an occasional pre-occupation while looking at the study of Torah as our fixed preoccupation.
My final thoughts actually began as my introduction to today’s drash but somehow shifted to the end as I gave it more thought. About twenty-five years ago, I was invited to lead a summer Shabbat service for the first time from this bimah and the chapter of Numbers happened to be Balak. Over time, I have had the wonderful experience of drashing on many chapters including Balak. Never once, have I not learned something new. Even, more important, I have listened and learned to many other lay leaders, our clergy, and guest teachers conduct Torah study. Whether the house we dwell and study in is here in this sacred space, or remotely via Zoom, the study of Torah helps us go from strength to strength.