This week we read Parshat Balak, and read the story of King Balak and Baalam. We’re reminded of this story every time we enter the sanctuary when we sing “Ma Tovu.” The parshat is a story of curses turned into blessings.
In it, King Balak sent Baalam, the greatest magician in the world, to curse the children of Israel so they would die. But God intervenes and tells Balaam he must say only what God commands. On three occasions, King Balak asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, but each time the seer blesses them instead.
The blessings of Balaam contain some beautiful poetry. His third poem of praise for the Israelites includes the following phrases: “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel. Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars beside the water” (Num. 24:5-6).
In addition to being an entrance prayer to the synagogue, His words became the opening prayer of every morning service. Balaam’s words capture the magnitude of blessing that one feels as they enter a holy place. “Ma Tovu” tells us to take notice of our sacred surroundings.
Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov,
How good are your tents, Jacob,
How good are your mishkans, Israel.
Jacob is the tent, that temporary shelter that we build, and is necessary in order to house and protect us as we travel through the wildernesses of our lives;
Israel is the mishkan, the site of connection to the eternal, to holiness and the presence of God.
As we approach the summer months, may we all be blessed with the gift of warm sunshine and light. May our sanctuaries connect us more deeply, and enlighten us with the lessons of Torah.