Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balak

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we read of the origins of the beautiful Mah Tovu prayer.  Here is the story.  Balak, the king of Israel’s enemy, the Moabites, becomes alarmed at Israel’s military victory over the neighboring Amorites.  So the king instructs his prophet Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites.

Rather than cursing his enemy, Balaam blesses the Israelites.  He offers several moving tributes about the people of Israel.  It is here that he offers the words of the familiar Mah Tovu prayer that opens the morning service: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24)

A beautiful poem to be sure, but one authored by a non-Jewish, idolatrous prophet.  His blessing opens our prayerbook.  Every other prayer in our siddur is authored by Jewish hands.  Yet we open with the words of someone from outside the tradition. Have you ever thought of what this might mean?  Have you ever thought of the significance of this opening to our great compendium of prayers and strivings for God?

There are those who dismiss its origins and say, “It is an exception.  The rule is Jewish prayers are written by Jewish hands.  Balaam only reinforces the point.”  But what if the Mah Tovu prayer is suggesting that we can find truth outside of our tradition, that we can discover spiritual yearnings in the non-Jewish world?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love our Jewish prayers.  Nothing really comes as close to expressing my views when I awake each morning than the Elohai Neshama prayer: “As long as this soul is within me I will give thanks to You, Adonai my God…”  Then again perhaps sometimes we can also find meaning from outside of our people.  Sometimes as well, like Balaam, the outsider can help us see the best in ourselves and help us express our devotion to God.

My favorite poets not only include the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, but also Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century Jesuit priest.  His writing reflects the majesty of the Bible’s psalms: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil…”

There are those who believe that truth and pathways to God can only be found from those who are like them, from those who think and act as they do.  Last week we read of ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews who do not want their children even to pray and learn with ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  This is the most extreme example of shutting the outside world out.  This is not how truth is discovered.  This is not how truth is revealed.

How are you going to learn or grow if you only talk to those who are like yourself?  How are you going to better pray to God if you never listen to the prayers and poetry of others?  Can we find inspiration from outside of our tradition as well as from inside?  How many in our congregation for example practice yoga?  Is yoga merely exercise or is there a spiritual component to this practice as well, a component deriving from Eastern religious traditions?

Our prayerbook opens with the words “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” and with this blessing, the implied observation that no one has a cornerstone on truth and approaching God.  What an extraordinary admission for a prayerbook filled with the strivings of generations of Jews!

All our prayers are but imperfect attempts to touch the divine.  Let us nonetheless enter the sanctuary and begin the attempt.

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