Home » Insights & Inspirations » Balaam Tried to Destroy Us, But Ended up in our Prayerbook!

Balaam Tried to Destroy Us, But Ended up in our Prayerbook!

Each morning, weekday, Shabbat, Holy Day or Festival, we begin our service with the prayer Mah Tovu. As thinking Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!
When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.
As the children of Israel were on their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam-– try as he might–could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents …”
Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah! He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses! (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; B. Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless to what he should have done when his donkey—an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity—perceived God’s will.
Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.
What does it mean that we begin our prayers every morning with the blessing of a non-Jew who set out to curse us? It means that no outside force–-no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, no Hitler, no one–can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! We can destroy ourselves through apathy and assimilation! We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Jewish life in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.
No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! Now that we have that understanding, let us begin our service with Mah Tovu!

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