Balak - “All Roads Lead to Paradise”
“” Mah Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov, Mishk’notekha Yisrael”
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
Guess who uttered those words first? A decidedly committed non-Jew, and actual Jew hater, Balaam, known throughout Jewish literature not just as Balaam but “Balaam Harasha”, or “Balaam the Wicked”.
Yes, we know that of course those words were forced in his mouth by Hashem, in place of the death-invoking curses Balaam intended to hurl at us. As we read in this Parasha, the Moabite king Balak hires Balaam, a world renowned sorcerer and “Prophet for Profit” curse the Jews, and instead of curses coming out of his mouth, beautiful and prophetic blessings emanate from him, one of which became the cherished “Mah Tovu” prayer.
As beautiful as Balaam’s words are, I have always searched to understand how his “curses-turned blessings” made it to such a “headliner” position in our most widely used holy book, the Siddur and to such a prominent place in our synagogue services and daily prayers. Are the words of King David in Psalms, King Solomon in Koheles and Mishlei (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs) less profound or beautiful? How about the songs of Miryam and Deborah? Could Balaam’s transformed curses not have found some other respected but less conspicuous venue to be displayed?
The answer that occurred to me may be almost obvious as you note how I describe Balaam’s words. They are not simply blessings, but blessings-turned-curses. Perhaps that is JUST the point our sages wanted us to note when we inaugurate our daily connection to Hashem, in Shul and in prayer-the transformative power of Tefillah, prayer.
When we daven, isn’t that exactly what we ask from Hashem?—that he transform whatever situation we face -no matter how much of a curse it may seem, or no matter what unknown curse lies around the corner -into an absolute blessing? What better way to portray the true essence of prayer and our belief in G-d’s ultimate good than by increasing our awareness of how even the most carefully planned, heinously crafted attack by the world’s most powerful Jew haters can be instantly transformed into pure blessing? How the vilest of curses can evolute as glorious testaments to our status as a light to the nations and as hosts of the Shechina itself? Only the words of Balaam, which turned black into white, hate into love, destruction into eternal success, and curse into blessing can truly demonstrate that.
And what a way to start our day. Whatever ugliness we are facing or may be facing that day—Once Hashem is accepted into our lives as we enter a Beit Kneset, a Shul, or when we start our day in prayer to Hashem–can and will be divinely transformed into one big beautiful blessing!
I urge us all to take advantage of this secret weapon called community prayer, and as I connect with you all through this great “Shul of the World”, I wish each every one of you a wonderful Shabbos filled with continuously transformative blessing: Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!