Our Torah portion contains a fascinating and fanciful description of the Moabite king Balak engaging a prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. The image of God defending the people and turning Balaam’s curses into blessings is so significant that one of the sages in the Talmud (Baba Batra 14b-15a) actually speculated that these chapters should stand as a separate book of the Torah.
This parashah serves as a complement to the beginning of the Exodus story. At that time, God protected and defended the people by stopping Pharaoh. Now, after the many years of wandering, God once again intervenes to stop an enemy standing in the way of the Israelites’ entry to their promised land.
The most familiar part of the parashah is when Balaam sees all of the people of Israel assembled, tribe by tribe. His words come out not as a curse but as a blessing, grand poetry that is still used in the synagogue today: “Mah tovu ohaleykha Ya’akov, mishk’noteykha Yisra’el!” We sing this song at the beginning of morning worship each day as well as proclaiming the words upon entering the synagogue: “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”
This poetic liturgical phrase does not merely compliment the physical beauty of our homes or synagogues. Rather, it celebrates the spiritual beauty that we find in our gathering places.
I love visiting synagogues – grand spaces and simple ones alike. I am fascinated by the artistic and architectural elements – the use of stained glass, the varieties of ner tamid (Eternal Light) and Arks, the various carvings and paintings and sculptures. Indeed, we are blessed to have so many beautiful synagogues in the world today.
Truly, though, what I love about visiting synagogues is the feeling in the air. There’s a sensation that is almost indescribable, that these are places dedicated to study and to action. However modern a synagogue may be, it is still a place where ancient teachings are brought to life and given new meaning. Synagogues induce spiritual focus, a mindfulness to reach our potential and act with love and kindness.
A few years ago, I visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, famous as the church once led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each person entering the sanctuary receives a pamphlet, typical of what one might receive when arriving at any synagogue or church. It includes the order of service, announcements about upcoming events, and other routine acknowledgements and information. However, there is one additional piece of information that has stayed with me. On the reverse side of the pamphlet are blank lines, with a heading that reads, “As a result of being in church today, I will …”
I think this is a wonderful, action-oriented perspective. With a simple substitution, imagine if we depart from our visit to the synagogue this Shabbat saying, “As a result of being in shul today, I will …
When we enter the synagogue, we sing the words from this portion of Balak: “Mah tovu…, How beautiful are Israel’s dwelling places!”
I pray that when we depart the synagogue, we may demonstrate the beauty and the potential in the synagogue, by taking action in the community. When we do that, the beauty of the synagogue will spread throughout the world.
RABBI PETER W. STEIN (Stein@TempleSinaiRI.org), rabbi of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Cranston, is immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.