"Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov" - How lovely are your tents, O Jacob.
Traditionally, Jews say this prayer to themselves upon entering the synagogue. It helps put one in the framework of gratitude and joy, appropriate for worship. In reform synagogues, it's typically sung on Shabbat or festival mornings, conveying the joy of community joined in prayer. The prayer is not about the man, Jacob, but about the community of b'nei Yisrael. In Genesis, God changed Jacob's name of Ya'akov to Yisrael... and we are his legacy.
There are ten words in the second verse of the song. Sometimes, a service leader will see if there's enough people for a minyan, a prayer service by pointing to congregants and reciting that verse, word by word.
This mathematical minyan checker adds extra poignancy to the fact that today, we don't typically recite the prayer by ourselves, although I may have exclaimed a similar sentiment to myself when I got hired to serve as your rabbi ... Ma Tovu, like many of our prayers, serves to bring us together - not just closer to God, but closer to each other.
And tonight I stand before you, looking out at our congregation of b'nei Yisrael, literally the children of Israel. I'm excited about our future together, and hope that this is the beginning of many shared moments of holiness and joy. Speaking of community, I want to think the "team" that brought me here, the members of the search committee, led beautifully by Mel Berzak. I hope that you're as happy with them as I am, as together we build the future for Congregation Children of Israel.
The first recitation of the Ma Tovu prayer is in this week's Torah portion, Balak. Named after the King of Moab, the portion of Balak tells the story of an enigmatic prophet, Balam. The king Balak wanted to curse the Jews, and he knew that Balam was the one to do it. The king says to Balam, "I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed."
So Balaam travels by donkey to curse the Israelites.
But something happens. The most talented prophet in the land does not curse us, but instead blesses us, reciting the words, "Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov."
Like most other interesting things, there are at least two ways of looking at this. One interpretation is that God intervened. Here the Israelites were, in the middle of the desert, experiencing record temperatures right outside of Dudley Drive ... Oh that's us isn't it ... After 400 years of slavery, God freed us through the waters of the Red Sea. In the middle of a 40 year trek, it doesn't seem likely that God would allow this hired mercenary to ruin everything. And so, God being God, shows Balam who's boss. And what better way to do that than by reversing Balam's words?
But I think there's another way of looking at this. I imagine Balaam waking up in the morning, eating a big breakfast, looking forward to the paycheck that awaits his return. He whistles to himself while walking to a mountain overlook from which he can see the encamped Israelite community. And he gives them a longggggggggg look ...
He sees that the Israelites' tents are open on all sides, welcoming strangers and visitors. There are youngsters learning Torah from their elders. People constantly walk into other tents to visit each other, especially the sick. They pray together, learn together, celebrate together, and mourn together. Balaam witnesses a joy of life that comes from a place of holiness, and not selfishness. He sees a holy, blessed, joyful community.
And on that lookout, as his eyes graze the bright sun, Balaam chooses to bless the Israelites. And we recall this blessing every morning.
I think that this teaches two things: sometimes, we can turn a curse into a blessing. And secondly, we are that blessing.
Many of you know the Jewish idea that on Shabbat, two angels accompany us for the day. When we eat dinner (I promise, not too much longer,) we will sing Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the angels to our midst. There's a great midrash that likens these angels to a positive influence, and a negative influence. It's like movies in which an angel and devil pop up, both trying desperately to convince the protagonist of making a certain choice. The midrash continues that if you arrive home from services and the table is made, everyone is smiling, families are hugging one another ... One angel says, "May this be the way Shabbat is." The second is forced to say, "Amen." Butttttt, if services end and families are bickering, the second angel says, "May this be the way Shabbat always is," and the first is forced to say, "Amen."
Being a community of holiness does not require the blessing of a prophet, or even God. It is up to us. Together. It is not up to me, it is not up to you ... As the saying goes, "It takes a village." But more than that, it takes a village whose tents open in all directions toward each other.
One of my favorite verses of the Torah exemplifies this idea. Found in Deuteronomy, Moses says: Lo Bashamayiim Hi, it is not in heaven. The 'it' is Torah, Judaism, holiness, blessing, joy, happiness, peace, nirvana ... It's not outside of our control, "up there" ... up to God. It's up to us.
I hope that as we continue our journey at Congregation Children of Israel, we are like those Israelites that Balaam observed. We will look at ourselves, others, like Balaam will observe us, and God will participate, and all will sing together, Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov.