June 30, 2023
This week in Torah (a double Torah portion of Chukat-Balak) we find our Israelite ancestors in the final leg of their 40 year wilderness journey – at the threshold of the Promised Land. There are still obstacles to overcome and battles to fight, but the end of this treacherous journey is in sight. The Moabite king, Balak, seeks to thwart the Israelites by assigning a pagan prophet, Balaam, to curse them. In one of the strangest scenes in Torah (and one reminiscent of the Shrek movies!) Balaam’s donkey sees the presence of an angel on their path, blocking their way. Balak is unable to see this angel, and hits the donkey to try to keep her on the route. The donkey begins to speak, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he is able to see the angel, and is compelled not to curse the Israelites but rather to bless them. From here, we get the verse “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” – You’ve doubtless heard this verse sung in Hebrew at the beginning of many services: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael.
I am preparing to leave for Israel this Sunday, to study in Jerusalem at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s 10-day Rabbinic Torah Seminar. At the same time, my 17 year old son is preparing to leave for a month in Nigeria on a service trip with his high school, and my youngest son is preparing to go to overnight camp for the first time. Inspired by these upcoming new journeys and this week’s Torah portion, I am thinking about the blessing of new perspectives and unexpected blessings given by travel.
There is so much in Parashat Balak about perception. What are the ways that we see, or do not see, our path and the landscape around us? Sometimes, the perception we lack can come to us from the most unexpected sources (even, in this case, a talking donkey). As Rabbi Yael Levy writes in her poetic interpretation of this Torah portion in Directing the Heart: Weekly Mindfulness Teachings and Practices from the Torah:
We so often go on our way
Seeing what we expect,
Perceiving what we assume,
So much of what we notice determined by habit and routine.
Sometimes we need to lose our way,
To walk into walls,
To fall to the ground
In order to free our gaze
And then we might hear the mystery speak,
we might behold visions from beyond,
Humbled, with eyes unveiled. (Numbers 24:4)
It is so important to give ourselves the opportunity to dwell in a different landscape even for a short time. Opening our eyes to new sights, new experiences, and breaking free of our routines and habits, can create an expanded, clearer perception of ourselves and our purpose, our path. Paradoxically, by journeying to new places and receiving a different part of the world with all of our senses, we can become more grounded and centered in our truest selves. The journeys toward and the experiences in new and different places are not necessarily easy, but can lead to great blessing by creating an expansiveness in us. Torah was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, our sages teach, because it could only be received in a wide-open wilderness. The Israelites, in this week’s Torah reading, are at the end of their wilderness journey, and are surely filled with the trepidation of entering the unknown, albeit long-promised, land of Canaan. Perhaps their perception is becoming narrowed – they are feeling tense and constricted (hearkening back to the constriction of Mitzrayim – Egypt – which means “the narrow places”). Perhaps it is Balaam the soothsayer who comes to remind them, and us, that at the core of who we are is “tov” – goodness – and the challenges and the joys of coming into a new place can expand and grow us into who we are meant to be.
Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael – How good indeed are our dwelling places. May opportunities for new experiences large and small serve to open our eyes to the blessings of who we are and where we are rooted.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman