Parshat Balak: Bilaam’s Blessings
Max Davis (Hamivtar 5760) serves as Rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He has previously served communities in Springfield, MA and Berkeley, CA. He remains deeply grateful to Ohr Torah Stone, the Rebbes and talmidim of Hamivtar, and the residents of Efrat for a lifechanging year of learning and growth.
Keriyat Shema is 22 pesukim in length, but it could have been significantly longer. According to the Gemara, our Sages sought to include parshat Balak within Keriyat Shema. (Berachot 12b) This is generally understood to mean the blessings uttered by Bilaam totalling fourteen additional verses, however it is possible that the Sages intended all 104 verses of the parsha. Ultimately, they declined to include the extra verses due to concerns of tircha – making the Shema onerously long. Nonetheless, the discussion highlights the immense importance of parshat Balak and raises questions of what message our Sages deemed worth including in our thrice daily, most famous tefillah.
Among the explanations for the significance of parshat Balak is the fact that it is the only parsha without Jewish ‘witnesses’. Bnei Yisrael were apparently unaware of the danger they faced nor the extent of divine protection they enjoyed in those moments. No Jews were present to record events as they unfolded and the only reason we discovered what happened was because Hashem included the story in Torah. Parshat Balak as a whole challenges us to maintain faith in Hashem as well as the divinity of Torah. Arguably, this exercise in faith would be appropriately situated in Keriyat Shema, the prayer that serves as our fundamental ‘Declaration of Faith.’
However, if our Sages were suggesting only the inclusion of Bilaam’s blessings, it is necessary to delve deeper into those fourteen verses to reveal their significance for our daily lives. One approach is to focus on Mah Tovu, the only one of Bilaam’s blessings to make it into our daily liturgy, albeit not as part of the Shema and not without some controversy. A responsum by the Maharshal rejects reciting the opening verse of Mah Tovu, in favor of beginning with the second sentence, Va’ani berov chasdecha. He argues essentially that the ends cannot justify the means. Bilaam spoke with a desire to curse us, and although Hashem righted the wrong, it would be inappropriate to include Bilaam’s words in our prayers.
Objections notwithstanding, Ashkenazi practice is to recite Mah Tovu at the outset of our daily tefillot. Sefer Baruch She’amar (R. Baruch HaLevi Epshteyn) inquires why Bilaam’s blessing receives such auspicious attention. He explains that these words of blessing convey an extra degree of potency precisely because they were spoken by a villain. The praise of a foe is far more astonishing than the same tribute offered by a friend. Mah Tovu and Bilaam’s blessings in general remind us of the lengths Hashem goes to protect and sustain us day and night. Perhaps this is why our Sages saw fit to include such words in Keriyat Shema, especially as it is recited at critical moments during the day.
Permit me to share an additional thought that emerges not from commentaries but from the lived experience of a congregant. This particular congregant recently related to me his volunteer efforts as guardian ad litem in our home state of Minnesota. The official definition of a guardian ad litem is a person “appointed by the Juvenile or Family Court to represent a maltreated child’s best interests in court proceedings.” (MN Guardian ad Litem Board). He described the certification process including several training exercises, one of which struck me for its subtly transformative power.
Participants were shown an image of the inside of a home. It was rundown, shabby and the sort of place many of us would prefer to avoid. The exercise was simple: Identify ten positive points in the photo. It could be a nondescript post-it note on the fridge – someone trying to remember something. It could be the simple bowl of fruit on the table – an attempt to feed. Completing the exercise helped participants reevaluate their perceptions. The home they had dismissed minutes earlier became a place that was lived in, a place of family, a place of plans, interests, tastes, loves and challenges.
Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob!
Bilaam was certainly no guardian ad litem, but perhaps he was forced to take another look at the homes that lay before him. Did Hashem cause him to internalize the words that emerged from his mouth? Did he understand the tov when he said Mah tovu? We cannot know. The Maharshal implies not. Others including Rashi imply that he did perceive the good. (Rashi states that Bilaam noticed a remarkably subtle detail of the encampment; that tents were staggered for the sake of modesty, lest residents be able to peer in on one another. How remarkable that Bilaam should notice such a detail, much less discern its purpose!)
Whether or not Bilaam understood the blessings that Hashem placed in his mouth, what matters is the concept of taking a deeper look at the sights and sounds Hashem places before us each day. Where might we rediscover the tov in our homes, communities and societies? What assumptions deserve a fresh look and deeper reflection? Reciting the blessings of Bilaam as part of our liturgy allows us to reenact Bilaam’s experience – the moment when Hashem swept away his intentions and, perhaps his assumptions. The moment when Hashem opened Bilaam’s mouth, and perhaps his eyes, to a diferent, more thoughtful picture. Enemy tents became homes worth blessing.
May parshat Balak and the blessings of Bilaam inspire us to see and to name the tov wherever it resides, and to partner in the development of this world with Hashem, Who renews creation daily betuvo!