July 22, 2016 - Congregation Kol Ami
Written and delivered by Jeremy Gimbel
This week, we witnessed a wealthy, racist, xenophobic, and paranoid leader use his power and influence to speak ill of a people, for the sole reason that they are different. Of course, I’m speaking of the character Balak in this week’s Torah portion.
Balak is a king of the neighboring Moabite community and he is fearful of the Jewish population. They’re just too big, he complains, they have too much influence...I think we have heard that before. Balak decides that the only way he can get a leg up on the Israelites is to hire a local prophet, Balaam, to stand on top of a mountain and curse the Israelites. Although Balak does his best to persuade Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam repeatedly tells Balak that he can only speak the words God puts in his mouth.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Balaam goes to the high place and takes a look at the Israelite community, he does not curse the Israelites, but he blesses them, differences and all: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” This blessing was so powerful that the rabbis who formed our prayerbook ensured that the first prayer we say in a morning service begins with these words: “Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
What is it about these tents and dwelling places that brought Balaam to offer these words? Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Talmud that Balaam saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face each other, and that the Israelites thus respected each other's privacy. (Bava Batra 60a) In other words, the Israelites respected community cohesion and the right to be different, unique, individual.
Jews embrace differences. Take a second and think about what the one, central teaching of Judaism is. If I was to poll the room, I’m sure I would get different answers from nearly all of you. After all, as the saying goes, if you put two Jews in a room you will get three opinions. The rabbis struggled with this as well. For Rabbi Akiba, a -- not the, but a -- central teaching of the Torah was to love your neighbor as yourself. For Hillel, it was, “What is hateful to you do not do to another.” While these stalwarts of our tradition could not agree on a central tenet of Judaism, the fact that they cannot agree is actually one of the more beautiful things about Judaism: we embrace dialogue, we embrace nuance, we embrace the right to be different. Judaism does not say, “You must think this way;” Judaism says, “Oh, good, you’re thinking!”
Indeed, one of our Jewish values is “hakarat hatov - seeing the good.” Hakarat hatov is about keeping a positive outlook -- seeing the good in the world at all moments of life. In Pirkei Avot, the lessons of our ancestors, we are taught, “Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with his lot.” (Avot, 4:1) We embody hakarat hatov when we sit at our Passover Seders and we say, “dayeinu - it would have been enough.” We embody hakarat hatov when we sing Mah Tovu and say, “Yes, there may be issues with our house, but our dwelling is pretty wonderful” and we “raise our voices in thanksgiving.” (Ps. 26:7) And we embody hakarat hatov when we reflect on this week and look at all of the good that happened this week: the NBA is standing up for LGBT rights, thousands stood up proudly at the Jerusalem Pride parade, and we almost went a whole week without a mass-casualty terrorist event. I know these may seem like small victories in the grand scheme of things, but hakarat hatov, seeing the good, is like gratitude - you have to start small. In a world full of k’vetching, Jews are different because we tend to look towards the good.
Truthfully, it is the differences and distinctions that we observe that make us who we are. Jews, for example, observe time differently. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so beautifully articulated in his book, The Sabbath, Jews on Shabbat create a “palace in time.” When we say kiddish, we are not imbuing special holiness to the wine or grape juice we drink. Rather, the wine is merely a conduit as we attribute holiness to the time of Shabbat, which we separate from the rest of the week. We do this with Shabbat and all of our holy times - we live out our differences with others by how we observe time.
So, perhaps Balaam’s blessing was a reminder to us all. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was meant to hold a mirror up to us. Perhaps Balaam’s blessing was really something very Jewish: embodying the value of hakarat hatov, seeing the good, and celebrating what makes Jews different.
This Shabbat, may we be like Balaam, reminding us to celebrate our differences, to see the good, and create a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of communal wholeness, of goodness, of peace.
Mah tovu - how good it is to be different!