Rabbi Mike’s first drash: Balak — 5777 “Mah Tovu: So much goodness in these tents”
OK, so to answer your questions:
1) Yes, I’m unpacked and moved into the office;
2) Yes, I’ve driven in snow before, and;
3) Yes, I know the weather here is worse than in California.
So why am I here?
More about that later.
First, I want to talk about the star of this week’s Torah portion, a guy named Balaam.
The best-known part of Balaam’s story is that he rides a donkey — but not just any donkey. A talking donkey.
Now, you had your choice of Friday nights for my first service. Last week, for instance, was a fascinating Torah portion — Chukat. Next week? Pinchas? Also interesting.
For me, you picked the Torah portion with the talking jackass.
But OK. Since I’m stuck with Balaam, let’s talk about Balaam.
Balaam is this guy who lives in P’tor, a town in Mesopotamia. And, one day, Balaam is hanging out in P’tor, living his very, very Mesopotamian life, when he gets approached by some dudes from Moab. Turns out they are servants of the king of Moab — whose name is Balak.
Balak has sent messengers from Moab to talk to Balaam because Balak has a problem. Balak’s problem is that there’s this people — they call themselves Israelites — who have camped out near Moab. And Balak is freaked out because there’s a lot of them. Va’agarshenu min-ha’aretz, he says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could deport them all out of country?”
Just imagine: a petulant leader who impulsively decides to summarily drive out hundreds of thousands of immigrants, based on nothing but irrational fear.
I know. It’s a stretch. Just humor me.
So where does Balaam come in? Apparently, Balaam makes his living by getting paid to give out blessings and curses on behalf of other people. Prophet-for-hire. Nice work if you can get it.
Balaam’s reputation as a spiritual mercenary, it would seem, has stretched all the way to Moab. Because Balak sends his guys all the way to P’tor. To offer to pay Balaam. To curse the Israelites.
Now Balaam, being a good prophet, has to ask God. And God, being God, says “no.” And Balak’s guys say “but we’ll give you a lot of money.” And Balaam says, “even if Balak gave me a house full of gold and silver, I couldn’t go if God said not to… so, uh, why don’t you stay the night and let’s see maybe God might have a change of heart.”
And God, being God, gets really angry, but sort of in a passive aggressive way, and says, “OK, you know what Balaam — do what you want.”
So off Balaam goes to prophesy for Balak. But there’s a funny thing about prophets – they tell you the truth about what they see in the world. Even, sometimes, if it gets them in trouble. Even, sometimes, if the people who pay their bills don’t like hearing it.
And sure enough — Balak takes Balaam up to the heights of Bamot-Baal. And Balaam looks out, opens up his mouth to curse the Israelites… and out pops a blessing. And Balak gets mad. So he takes Balaam up to Sdeh-Tzofim. Balaam looks out, opens up his mouth to curse the Israelites… And out pops a blessing. And Balak gets even madder. So he drags him to Pe’or.
And, so the Torah tells us, Balaam lifted up his eyes. Vayar Yisrael. “And he saw the Israelites.” The man who came to curse the Israelites, who was being paid to curse the Israelites, saw the Israelites. And he couldn’t help himself.
Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov. How good are your tents, Jacob. Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How good are your dwelling places, Israelites.
What happened? Why didn’t Balaam do his job?
He saw those tents.
They must have been really nice tents.
Or maybe he saw something else. Maybe he saw what was in those tents. Maybe God showed him something deeper, something greater. The people in those tents, and who they are, and where they’ve been, and what sustains them, and what they’ve created, and where they’re going.
Balaam looks. Really looks. And, in looking at those tents and those people, his language is changed — and he is changed.
Mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness. After what he’s seen, he can’t help but say a blessing.
I know the feeling.
Why leave the nice life and the amazing friends and the low humidity of Oakland? I saw your tents. Mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness. I couldn’t help myself.
And the more I see, and the more I hear, the more blessing there is. When I sit with congregants, and one by one they tell me how it was Beth Elohim who got the family through family crisis and tragedy — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
When I drive a half-hour to my first Beth Elohim shiva minyan, and despite the distance, I find the room packed with friends — and strangers, who are there because it’s the right thing to do — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
There are other stories like that. But it’s not just the hard stuff. It’s also the happy stuff.
Like when I sit with Linda, and she tells me how the founders of this place made something out of nothing, how they cared so much that they shlepped and scraped and painted and, at the end of the oneg, took the garbage home in the trunks of their cars — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
When I sit with the choir, who makes musical magic out of thin air, bearing prayer on their wings – because they love music and they love each other and they love this community — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
When I sit at a Shabbat table with a half-dozen beautiful families, who make Shabbat every Friday night for themselves and for their kids — awesome kids who smile at me, this new stranger, kids who give out cookies and high-fives with the same infectious joy — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
When I sit with Na’aseh, regular people with regular jobs and regular bills and regular tsuris, who look at a broken nation and a world in danger and say na’aseh — “we’ll be the ones who get off our tuchases and do something about it” — I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
When I sit with people, young and old, and traditional and secular, and knowledgeable and not — and Jewish and not — and they all make one, glorious, awesome family. When I look at this miracle in Middlesex county, I can’t help but say mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness.
Balaam looks at a humble circle of Jewish tents, and he is changed. And, just as assuredly, I have looked at your tents and dwelling places — and I have been changed. I already feel so blessed. I am already so grateful.
Of course, this change is not enough. We want to grow, not just or even primarily in number. We want to grow in knowledge, in spirituality, in inspiration, in righteousness. We want our community to be better, our nation to be kinder and fairer, our world more just. We want Beth Elohim to be that change.
It all feels like so much.
But no matter how daunting any of this feels, no matter how wide the river, or how high the mountain looks from here, remember this — there isn’t any change that needs to be made, in this community, in this world, that isn’t already in our tents.
You built it, here. You called it Beth Elohim. “God’s house.” And so you do God’s work in God’s house.
I came for a visit. I decided to stay.
(You decided to let me.)
Mah tovu ohalecha. So much goodness in this house. So much goodness in these tents. Like Balaam, I was changed by it. And so now — together — wet set our hearts on continuing the sacred work.
Let the holy flame of love and justice and compassion and good companions shine from every window of every one our tents.
Let the world gaze upon those tents. Let the whole world see their goodness. Let the whole world be changed by it.
Kein yehi ratzon. May it be God’s will. May it be our will.