Parshas Balak (5770)
If you turn to the beginning of any Siddur (Jewish Prayer Book), you will see that the very first prayer one says upon entering the synagogue for morning services is Mah Tovu.
This prayer, which begins with the verse “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob …” and which praises the Jewish people for their beautiful tents of learning and prayer as well as their modest homes, was originally spoken by the prophet Bilaam (as recorded in this week’s Torah portion – see Numbers 24:5) as he gazed at the tents of the Jewish people from atop a mountain overlooking their camp. Whereas Bilaam had every intention of cursing the Jews as Balak, King of Moav, had hired him to do, G-d prevented him from doing so, and instead placed these beautiful words of praise for the Jewish people in his mouth.
Which kind of begs the question … I mean, of all the amazing verses and prayers praising the Jewish people that are recorded in the Torah and which were composed by saintly and righteous individuals, the Sages who composed the Siddur had to choose the words of the wicked non-Jew Bilaam (which were initially intended to be a curse) to begin the prayers?! Does this make sense?
[In fact, there was a famous rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1500’s named Rabbi Solomon Luria (otherwise know as the Maharsha”l – an acronym for Moreinu Harav Shlomo Luria, Our Teacher, Rabbi Solomon Luria) who actually wrote in his collected Responsa (#64) that the Mah Tovu prayer should not be said at all because it was originally uttered by the accursed Bilaam!]
I would like to share with you a beautiful answer to this question that I once heard from Rabbi Kalman Rosenbaum, the former principal of Torah Day School of Atlanta (where my wife and I sent our kids to school while living in Atlanta for four years) and one of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever met. He explained as follows:
Rashi, in his commentary to the aforementioned verse, explains that what Bilaam saw in the Jews’ tents that was so “goodly” and moved him so much, was the fact that the Jews went out of their way to arrange their tents so that their entrances did not face each other, which prevented intrusions on the privacy of other families.
Now imagine the Jews down in the valley, going about their business, arranging their tents with such modesty and sensitivity. Did they even realize that at that very moment, high atop a mountain overlooking the valley, there stood a man named Bilaam who was watching them closely and – because of the sensitivity that they displayed toward their fellow man – was actually moved to bless the Jewish people instead of his initial plan to curse them?
The truth is, of course, that the Bilaams of the world and many others are watching us. And because we’re Jews and we were given the lofty mission of representing G-d and His Torah to the world, those watching us hold us up to a higher standard of behavior than everyone else – as well they should.
And it’s not just the non-Jews who are watching us. The Talmud in Yoma 86a interprets the verse “And you shall love G-d your Lord with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) to mean that in addition to the primary mitzvah for each Jew to love G-d, there is also an obligation to make G-d’s Name become beloved among the Jewish people. The Talmud then explains how this can be accomplished:
“A person should study the Torah, the Mishnah, and learn Talmud; he should be honest in business, and speak gently to people. What do people say about such a person? ‘Fortunate is the father who taught him Torah. Fortunate is the teacher who taught him Torah. Woe to the people that did not learn Torah; for this person has studied Torah, look how correct his deeds are!’ But if a person studies the Torah and the Mishnah, and learns Talmud, but is dishonest in business and does not speak gently to people, what do people say about him? ‘Woe to him who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah! This man who studied Torah; look how corrupt his deeds are, how ugly his ways are.’ "
This is why, explains Rabbi Rosenbaum, the Sages chose the words of the wicked Bilaam “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” to be the first prayer said upon a Jew’s entering the synagogue. It is to remind us as we first appear in public each day that just as Bilaam was watching and scrutinizing the Jews on that mountaintop over 3000 years ago, so, too, are we Jews being watched today – and we therefore need to be extra careful to make a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify G-d’s Name, in the way we act toward our fellow man.
The world out there today is watching us Jews, not just as individuals, but also collectively as represented by the State of Israel – and it is our duty as G-d’s chosen people to make sure that we live up to the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior at all times, as befitting our given role in the world.
And just as our ancestors made such a tremendous impression on the wicked Bilaam by doing something as simple as arranging their tents to afford each other a little privacy, we, too, can make a great impact on those who are watching us if we always remember to act in a way that sanctifies G-d’s Name, thus bringing morality and G-dliness and beauty to the world around us.