Mah Tovu: Transforming Curses to Blessings in Parshat Balak

Rabbis Annie Lewis & Yosef Goldman with daughter Zohar at Camp Ramah

What does it look like to change curses into blessings? How might we become beacons of justice and compassion in these times?

On a sunny Shabbat morning one year ago this week, we sat in the playground at Camp Ramah in the Poconos with our daughter, then two-years-old, listening to the sounds of the Torah reading streaming in from six different services across the campus. As our daughter peeked out of the window of a tiny wooden house, we heard these words from Parashat Balak:

מַה טּבוּ אהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקב מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your habitations, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

In this Torah portion, after thirty-eight years of journeying through the wilderness, the Israelites arrive in the plains of Moav. Balak, King of Moav, drums up fear among the Moabite people, telling them tales of what the Israelites have done to the Amorites. He issues dire warnings of an infestation from this Hebrew multitude that will “lick up all that is round about us as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” Balak engages Bil’am, a prophet for hire, to curse Israel. However, Bil’am is unable to curse the Israelite people; God won’t let him. Bil’am attempts to curse Israel three times, but attuned to God’s will, he is only able to summon words of blessing. He showers praises on the people Israel’s dwelling places, their strength and their spirit.

As we reread this ancient story, it is a painful and frightening moment of moral crisis in our country. A power-hungry and fear-mongering ruler spews hateful words. Our government is dehumanizing and traumatizing migrant families and children who are arriving at our borders, longing for life. This week we ask: What does it look like to change curses into blessings? How might we become beacons of justice and compassion in these times?

We sing this song “Mah Tovu” in the hopes that we might slow down when encountering the stranger and get beyond our walls of fear and self-protection to see the humanity of the other with compassion. We sing this song as a prayer that we might all lift up our prophetic voices and turn curses into blessings, that all who search for sanctuary will be embraced in goodness.

Music written and performed by Rabbi Annie Lewis & Rabbi Yosef Goldman (with Ari Kushner, guitar)


Rabbi Annie Lewis is Director of Rabbinic Formation at Reconstructing Judaism. Rabbi Yosef Goldman is Rabbi and Director of Sacred Music at Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel (BZBI) in Philadelphia.
 

 

 

Found in: Communal Tragedy, Pursuing Justice, Morning Service, Torah Portion: Parashah

Tags: immigration, social justice, blessing, mah tovu


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