I write the Weekly Torah Commentary for the Congregation Emanu-El website about three times a year. This time, I thought it made sense to share it here. Shabbat Shalom.
(2) As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. (3) Taking up his theme, he said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, (4) Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled: (5) How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
In their original context, in this week’s Torah portion, these words are spoken by the prophet Balaam, who has been hired to curse the Israelites by Balak, the king of Moab. Balak has seen the victories of the Israelites against other nations as they have traveled in the desert, and he fears that this soon will be the fate of his own kingdom. But Balaam finds himself only able to offer words of blessing, and it is these words of praise, first spoken by a non-Jew, that now are part of our daily liturgy.
When we teach our students about this prayer, we ask them to offer a compelling explanation for what we could possibly mean when we say the word “Israel” in this prayer. Some say that this prayer is a wish for the well-being of the people who live in Israel today, whether Jewish or not. Others note that the prayer also mentions Jacob and argue that this is a prayer for all of those descended from him — all Jews, everywhere. Still others observe that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after wrestling with an angel, so this prayer is a reminder that we must grapple with the Divine when we pray.
This prayer has been a sort of “theme song” for our two congregational family trips to Israel, in July 2008 and this past December 2009 – January 2010. Shortly after arriving, we sang these words while standing on a hilltop in Jaffa, looking out on the city of Tel Aviv. I tried to imagine how all of the people living in every apartment complex and villa are trying to make a good and beautiful place for themselves and their families. A few days later, while visiting a mountaintop kibbutz overlooking the Lebanese border, I looked out towards the houses on the other side of the valley separating the two countries. I thought to myself, if only the people living on each side of the border could look to the other and offer words of blessing: How good, how beautiful, is the place where you live.
On our final night in Jerusalem, just before heading to the airport, we again sang these words while looking out at the Old City, divided into four quarters like the four chambers of the human heart. It is to this spot that we turn when we pray, reminding ourselves that the heartbeat of Jerusalem has kept the Jewish people alive throughout the centuries. Yet, here too is where Jesus walked and, some say, was resurrected; where Muhammad is reported to have ascended to heaven; for Christians and for Muslims, as for us, Jerusalem is the beating heart of a people.
We teach our students that there isn’t a single correct answer as to what we mean when we say “Israel” in these words. But I know that for me, I agree with all three of these answers. I am praying for the beautiful homes of the Jews, my people, my own ancestry. I am praying for the good homes of the people living in Israel, whatever their religion may be. And I am grappling with the Divine and wondering when will the time come that enemies will turn to one another and find themselves only able to offer words of blessing.