2016-07-20 / Religion Column

A vision from afar can provide a different perspective

Community Chaplain

Parashat Balak
Num. 22:2-25:9

Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael/How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel”—these are the well-known and beloved words Jews recite at the beginning of every morning worship service. They are the first of a short collection of Biblical verses that acknowledge the beauty and the goodness available when one joins a community gathered in prayer. They welcome us into our worship, and, in the rabbinic tradition, remind us of the strength and beauty of our community and its institutions. As we face the day, we begin our worship with words of hope and encouragement.

According to the Biblical narrative, these words were first uttered by the non-Israelite prophet Balaam when he viewed the Israelite encampment from the heights of Mount Peor. Although he was hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Israelite nation, Balaam as a prophet could not curse the people God had already blessed. Three times Balak implored Balaam to recite words of condemnation, and, despite elaborate ritual preparation, Balaam could only reiterate God’s blessings.

In Balaam’s third prophecy, the line Mah Tovu introduces a description of the Israelite camp as a verdant garden planted in the midst of the wilderness. From his perspective, our ancestors seemed to be living in Eden, strengthened by God’s protective and loving care. Balaam’s words painted a picture of a strong, secure and successful nation.

From above, everything seemed perfect. Yet we know that that vision was incomplete. If one looked at our ancestors’ encampment from ground level, one would have seen a different vision. The bulk of the Book of Numbers deals with the problems inherent in forming a united community out of those who fled Egyptian slavery. Plagued by lack of trust in their God and faith in themselves, our ancestors suffered set-backs and defeats. After the initial problems seemed to subside, Moses had to deal with the major challenge to his leadership offered by his kinsman Korah.

Now, at the end of the 40 years of wandering, the Israelites faced additional challenges. A generation was passing. Miriam and Aaron had died. Moses’ own death was approaching, and he had to ensure continuity in leadership. Despite victories such as those against Sihon and Og, the people still felt insecure, protesting the limited supply of food and water. Shortly after Balaam’s vision of a secure and blessed Israel, our ancestors’ faced the greatest challenge to their unity since the Golden Calf, with the abandonment of God at Baal Peor.

Perspective means a great deal. Balaam, looking down from the hills surrounding the Israelite camps, had a vision of a strong, prosperous people. We, however, through the memories enshrined in the Book of Numbers, see things differently. As much as we are encouraged by Balaam’s bird’s eye view, we know things are never so simple, so good and so beautiful.

Even today it is easy to get lost in the seemingly unending series of obstacles that have always challenged us, as a Jewish community. We are always in need of more funding. There is always more to do than there are people willing to do it. It is a lasting challenge to dialogue over the crucial issues with people who see things differently. Questions of meaning, purpose and direction never seem to disappear. So when things seem so hard on the ground, we need to remember that there is another perspective.

Our prayer book has it right. Starting our day off with a reminder that at least, from on top of the mountain, things look good, will keep us from losing sight of our greater purpose before we are engulfed by the nitty-gritty aspects of everyday life. It is a great blessing to be able to step back from our seemingly impossible and ceaseless daily tasks, to see how far we have gone, what we have built, and how things look from the outside. Perhaps, things really are not so bad. They may, in fact, be beautiful and good. 

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