Balak 2016 - 5776 and the blessing around us

Post date: Jul 21, 2016 9:49:51 AM

7/22 Parshat Balak

This week’s parsha, Balak, recounts the story of the Moabite King Balak. Fearing the invasion of the Israelites, he hires the Prophet Balaam to curse them. The story is intriguing and humorous in its own right, but I'd like to focus on just one aspect of it.

When Balaam is with King Balak, not only does he fail to curse the Israelites several times, to Balak’s great frustration, eventually, Balaam utters, “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishk’no’techa Israel!” - “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your houses of worship, Israel!”

This passuk/verse – often sung at the start of Shacharit/morning liturgy, as we enter the sanctuary – is the basis for a song by Rabbi Margot Stein. The chorus of the song reads:

“Born to sing your praises in your holy, holy spaces. Mah tovu it’s the morning, mah tovu.”

This was one of our “flagpole songs” when I was a child at Jewish summer camp, and we sang it surrounded by a sloping, grassy hill, a creek shaded by large oak trees, and a patch of woods filled with black raspberry bushes.

Singing about holy space while sitting on dew-laden grass on a cool summer morning seemed, to my young mind, entirely appropriate. What else could be holy, if not the beautiful world around us?

Now, as I prepare to make a huge transition in the space where I live every day, I have begun to pay more attention to what makes a space holy and worthy of blessing. Certainly, beautiful spaces can make us stop, gaze in wonder, and praise God. Hiking to the tops of mountains, walking through a rainforest, or seeing a sunset – we can see holiness in all of these. However, today, as I walked through the suburbs of Boston, I saw other holy spaces. Streets where I had gone for countless runs, public transit stops bringing together all manner of community members, shops and stores run by small families struggling to make a living. These spaces did not seem holy to me before – they simply made up the neighborhood where I lived. As I am about to leave these spaces – perhaps forever – they feel sacred, though in a way very different from breathtaking landscapes.

I wonder if, sometimes, when we need it most, God gives us the ability to see the blessing inside that which feels like a curse. When all we want to do is express negativity and anger, sometimes I think God can give us the ability to utter a blessing, to look at the space around us and find beauty. The beauty that has been present, though slipping past our awareness in the midst of working, commuting, or attending to King Balak’s wishes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Yvonne Asher