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Message from our Clergy |Chukas - Balak, 5780

07/03/2020 11:05:47 AM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

This Shabbat marks the first Shabbat that our community can gather again for in-person services.  We thank Hashem for this opportunity to gather in a safe manner for prayers.  At the same time we recognize that for many of us it is still too dangerous even to gather in this manner and we continue to pray for the day when all of us can gather like in the days of old.
This past week we have been davening outdoors with masks on our faces and only a tent as shelter. In doing so we have been fortunate to fulfill in a literal sense the words of our Torah portion.
Balaam looked at the Jewish people and said:
“Mah Tovu Ohelekhah Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.
How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).
The Talmud says that Balaam specifically sought to curse the synagogues of the Jewish people, and instead this curse was turned into a blessing.
“Rabbi Yoḥanan says: From the blessing of that wicked person, Balaam, you can ascertain what was in his heart. God transformed the curses that he planned into blessings. He sought to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls, and he said instead: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob” (Numbers 24:5), a blessing on their synagogues. He sought to say that the Divine Presence [shekhina] will not rest upon them, and he said instead: “And your dwellings [mishkenot] Israel” (Sanhedrin, 105b).
It is a special merit to fulfill the words of the Torah.  As we davened in a tent, I felt that the blessing of Balaam was doubly coming true as our synagogue has literally become a tent!  And even though there were and are severe logistical challenges I felt that Divine Presence has been resting upon our prayer gatherings.
Balaam uses the Hebrew word mah as an exclamation as if to say, “HOW amazing are the dwellings of Israel.
In the Haftorah portion of this week, the prophet Micah also uses the word mah. 
In a message that we must take to heart as we return to in-person communal prayer the prophet reminds us that God does not desire empty sacrificial offerings that are devoid of meaning.
With what shall I approach the LORD, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for my sins?” (Micah 6:6-7).
The answer to all these questions is obviously, “no.”  The prophet is reminding us that Gd does not desire our sacrifices without deeds, or for that matter, our prayers, without meaningful action.  Our return to in-person communal gathering is only significant if it accompanied by a strong desire to better our ways and by the meaningful implementation of our desires.
In the words of Micah:
“He has told you what (mah) is good, and mah Hashem seeks from you.  Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
This same word mah is the source of a teaching in the Talmud that every single day a Jew is required to recite one hundred blessings.
A person is obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day, as it is stated in the verse: “And now, Israel, what [mah] does the Lord your God require of you” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Rabbi Meir interprets the verse as though it said one hundred [me’a], rather than mah (Menachot, 43b).
The great commentator Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909) connects this Talmudic teaching about our responsibility to recite one hundred blessings every single day to the blessing of Balaam. 
When Balaam looked over at the Jewish people and exclaimed MAH he was actually prophetically referring to a future moment and praising the actions of a future Jewish community in response to a plague.
“Mah tovu:  It appears to me that this relates to the teaching that a person must recite one hundred blessings every day (Menachot, 43b).  These one hundred blessings were instituted by King David in the midst of a plague. King David saw that there were one hundred people dying every single day. He had no idea why everyone was dying, so he investigated the matter with holy inspiration and in order to stop the plague he established that everyone must bless Gd one hundred times a day.  And indeed, the dying stopped” (Ben Ish Chai, Introduction to Balak).
According to Ben Isha Chai, Balaam’s mah tovu blessing must be understood in this context.  Balaam appreciated that in the middle of a plague the Jewish people were able to recite one hundred blessings every day.  This spiritual strength caused Balaam to bless us.
I don’t pretend to understand the relationship between reciting one hundred blessings every day and the cessation of a plague.  But I do believe with all my heart and soul that if we are somehow able to recite one hundred blessings a day that we will gain the spiritual strength necessary to deal with a plague during these difficult days.
Over these last few months there have been many moments where our community, our city, and our country have been tested in ways previously unimaginable.  Unfortunately I don’t expect that we have been entirely able to put those moments in the past.  It is likely that we still have many rough days ahead of us.  During the darkest of times I have stopped what I was doing and thought about this simple task: How can I find one hundred blessings to recite today?  On a personal level this task gave me enormous spiritual strength and guidance.
The mah of mah tovu reminds us to recite one hundred blessings in order to gain the strength to manage our days.
It is perhaps for this reason that we have the custom to begin our morning prayers with the words mah tovu
This is actually a controversial practice.
The great 16th century sage Rabbi Shlomo Luria objected to this practice and said that he does not recite these words because they were first recited by the wicked Balaam.  Moreover, Balaam’s desire was to curse our people.  So how can we recite these words that were rooted in wickedness at the start of our daily prayers (responsum, number 64).
And yet, the accepted custom is not like Rabbi Luria.  We do recite these words every day at the start of our prayers.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, z”l, explained why:
We say “ma tovu” not despite the fact that it was intended to harm us, but because of that very fact. It is Jewish to find the benediction in the malediction, the good in the evil, the opportunity in the catastrophe. It is Jewish to make the best of the worst, to squeeze holiness out of profanity. From the evil and diabolical intentions of Balaam, “May you not have any synagogues and schools,” we molded a blessing of “ma tovu,” which we recite just as we enter those very halls of worship and study.

Rabbi Lamm passed away thirty days ago.  But he wrote these words in 1954.  How timely they are for us today.  He is telling us that mah tovu reminds us that it is our jobs as Jews to find the benediction in the malediction and the opportunity in the catastrophe.

According to the Talmud Balaam was indeed a great prophet—perhaps even greater than Moshe.  Balaam’s secret was that he knew the moment in the day that Gd was angry and that is when he called upon Gd to curse others (Sanhedrin, 105a). 
Balaam was a prophet of anger.  The angry person only sees bitterness and darkness everywhere.
That can not be us.  We will see the goodness.  We will see the light.  We will be mah tovu Jews.  We will pray in whatever we can.  Whether it is via zoom or in a tent with a mask over our mouths and we will call the Divine Presence into our assembly.  We will declare over and over again the blessings of Gd. 
We are so grateful to You, our Lord, for all that we have.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783