Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkinotecha Yisrael.
“How glorious are your tents O Jacob, Thy dwelling places, O Israel.”
These famous words from the Book of Numbers are part of every worship service. In most Reform congregations we sing them at the beginning of Shabbat morning worship and other daytime services. In other communities it is traditional to say them to yourself as you walk into the sanctuary.
Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov. They are beautiful words that come from a surprising source. Given our natural human tendency to toot our own horn, you would think that they were uttered by an Israelite, and an important one at that. Yet, as we learn from our Torah, the opposite is true. Balam, the speaker of these great words of blessing, is not Israelite, but Moabite. He is not an officially licensed prophet of the God of Israel, but a hired gun, who goes around telling local princes of power exactly what they want to hear, and collecting a handsome fee for his pains. Balam was hired by the Moabite King Balak, to curse Israel, but every time he is ordered to do so, God puts words of blessing into his mouth instead.
Why do we begin our services with these lines spoken by a non-Israelite? Why not start by quoting Moses or Devorah, the Sages or the Rabbis? What are the implications of beginning our worship with these famous words from a foreign source? There are, I believe, a number of important lessons to be drawn from our continued choice to do so.
The main implication seems to be that it’s not so much who we are, but what we actually say and do that makes our words worth remembering. Balam does not enjoy the status of Moses, King David or Isaiah, but the words he speaks and his acts of blessing are recognized as having great worth. All to often we make the mistake of agreeing or disagreeing, praising or criticizing what someone did or said based upon who they are, rather than seriously assessing their words and actions independently.
Let me elucidate this phenomena with an example from the world of art. How do we know if a painting or a play is truly great? There was once a professor of literature who conducted an “infamous experiment” in which he asked students to analyze a number of poems. He purposefully selected a combination of little known poems by well–known writers and little known poems by obscure writers. The results were fascinating. The works by well–known writers were harshly critiqued, while those of the lesser known artists received a great deal of praise. Far too often it happens the other way around. We judge something as good, or bad based on who did it, wrote it, or said it, rather than assessing it according to its actual strengths and weaknesses.
The majesty of Balam’s words could have been pre-emptively dismissed as irrelevant because they were spoken by a Moabite and not a Hebrew. But the editors of Jewish poetry, prose and prayer wisely avoided falling into that trap. Ma tovu, has been given a special place of honor because they are God’s words. The fact that they were transmitted by a non-Israelite prophet does not lessen their greatness, but it may even increase it. Torah teaches us that one does not have to be an Israelite or a Jew to be a human being with respect for humanity and for God. Balam is not the only non-Israelite who displays reverence for God and kindness to Israel. The midwives, Shifra and Puah, named in the Book of Exodus and often understood to be Egyptian, refuse to obey Pharaoh’s cruel command to kill all Hebrew babies at birth. In the Book of Joshua, Rahav, the innkeeper, shelters Israelite scouts even when the King of Jericho demands that she hand them over. Like Balam, she utters famous words that have been forever preserved in our prayer service. In the Alienu or the Adoration, we can hear her profession of God’s greatness: “Ki Adonai Alochaychem Hu HaElochim ba’shamyim mi’ma’al v’al Ha’aretz mitahchat. For Adonai, your God, is God in heaven above and in the earth below.” The bravery and reverence shown by these women of valor, like the words of Balam, highlights important Jewish values. Firstly that people of different religions and nationalities can recognize the integrity and the holiness of each other’s beliefs. And secondly that one need not necessarily be Jewish in order to love and serve the Jewish people.
A great deal of time and energy is now being spent in our movement wrestling over the question of what non-Jews should and should not do in our synagogues. The issue is being hotly debated within our seminary, the Rabbi’s council and in every Reform synagogue around the country and even throughout the world. I believe that the words of Balam, and Rahav, as well as the actions of the Egyptian Midwives and righteous Gentiles throughout human history, give us reasons based in Torah for why we should do all we can to facilitate an atmosphere of openness and inclusion in our worship services and lifecycle events. We all have reservations and misgivings about this process, but it is a dialogue that must be brought into the open so that everyone’s opinion can be heard. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but we must meet the creative and spiritual challenge of honoring non-Jewish participants at lifecycle events and synagogue services if we are to live up to our commitment to pluralism and progressive change. Rather than fearing a watering down of standards or a blurring of distinctions, we should see this task as an opportunity for everyone involved to study Torah and revitalize our rituals in the true spirit of Reform Judaism. This is a challenge and an opportunity that faces all of us, myself and my family included.
Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkinotecha Yisrael. How glorious are Your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel! How blessed are we that we have such rich diversity of families and individuals within our community who enrich Judaism with all the beautiful gifts they have to share! How blessed are we to have devoted leaders who help us educate, explore and clarify! How blessed are we for the freedom and the opportunity to worship in a community of inclusion, compassion and respect for the spark of the Divine image that burns within all human beings!
Ma’ tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mish kenotecha Yisrael.
God of Prophets, and Prophecy, God of Jews and Gentiles, God of Israel and of All the World. Help us to teach Torah to each other. Grant us the ability to reach out to one another in friendship and equality. Renew each Day, O God, our desire to worship You together with all our heart with all our strength and with all our being. Blessed are You O God, for creating times and places of holiness. And let us say Amen.