Ma tovu ohaleicha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. With poetic symmetry, we speak these words as we begin our prayer every morning. As we do, we rarely consider these words coming from the mouth of Bilaam, the evil one.
How is it that words spoken by such an evil man, as Chazal teach, refer to our blessed synagogues and houses of learning? Who among us could have found a more perfect expression to describe the places we pray and study? And yet, we know by reading the entirety of the Balak parasha that Bilaam’s intent was to curse Israel; to ensure that there would be no synagogues or schools, no future at all for the Jewish people.
He wanted desperately to damn us. God transposed his words to blessing.
This is but one of many examples of God shielding us, uplifting us. So, it is fair to ask, why these words when we enter into prayer? Why not words from a Psalm of David? Perhaps some of Solomon’s wisdom? Why the words of one clearly determined to destroy us?
Bilaam was a master teacher of an eternal diatribe against the Jewish people. In every generation “they stand up to annihilate us”; in every generation they seek to demean and belittle us.
Bilaam was everything to which we stand opposed. So why his words?
Balak, the King of Moav, saw the Israelites progress across the wilderness and grew scared for his people. Having seen them succeed against other peoples, he believed he needed a strategy to weaken them before doing battle against them. He believed if only a world-renowned spokesman would ascend to a large enough platform to “curse the nation that has gone out from Egypt and covered the face of the land,” that he might be able to slow it, to diminish it and “soften it up” for a more conventional destruction.
How familiar his strategy sounds to us! From Bilaam to the United Nations, we have been cursed, lied about, slandered. Balak’s “public relations” strategy was as obvious as it was cruel – to debase us as foreigners, intruders, aggressors, immigrants (not yet all-powerful money lenders and bankers!) – so that “public opinion” would render us ripe for destruction.
Bilaam, accepting Balak’s invitation became the model for all those who would rise after him. But that… that’s ancient history now. There is no need to mine the mounds of history for examples of this strategy. We have contemporary examples everywhere we turn. Cable networks, print media – we live in an “age of Bilaam”.
Our modern day Bilaams multiply over and over. They go by famous names and titles. That they are eloquent and “thoughtful” is beyond dispute. But so too the first Bilaam, whose prose and poetry remains unmatched by these deceitful charlatans.
And yet, it is his words, these words, that we say as we enter our sanctuaries.
In the haftarah to Parashat Balak, Micah recalls some of the ways in which God protected the newly emerged nation during its years of its wandering in the desert. God’s protective arm was always outstretched to shield us, eradicating the obstacles in our path. “In anger and fury will I inflict vengeance upon the nations that do not listen...” and so much more. And then Micah declares, “Ami, zechor nah… “O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Bilaam son of Beor answered him.”
Zechor nah – remember!
We are being told to remember what Bilaam and Balak sought to do to us. Zechor is the term Torah uses when we are being asked to remember the most essential experiences and lessons of our history and tradition.
Zechor the Midbar.
And now, we are told to zechor Bilaam.
The Talmud (Berachot 12b) suggests that parts of parashat Balak would have been included to be recited with the Shema! The Chidushei Harim said that, despite not being included with the Shema, we fulfill Micah’s imperative to zechor Bilaam and Balak daily, by reciting Ma Tovu. Suddenly, it seems that Ma Tovu is even more consequential than we considered.
Micah’s zechor is not memory as a static process, a mental image of something that transpired long ago. Micah’s zechor is a living thing. Remembering is part of Jewish experience. We live with our past in every moment that we live. But Micah’s zechor is even more than carrying the past to the present.
We are to remember Bilaam not simply in the past, along with our memories of all his disciples throughout the millennia. We are to remember not just in the present, hearing his voice in the voices of the haters and talking heads that walk among us. We are to remember Bilaam for the future.
The lessons of the past, the experiences of the present and the hopes for the future. Zechor nah. This is the lesson of Ma Tovu when we begin to pray. These words, with which we initiate our daily dialogue with God are filled with poetry and hope but were intended as curses.
Ma Tovu is the secret to our survival.
In an Aish.com article referring to an arson attack on Aish UK Hendon center in 2004, Rabbi Naftali Schiff spoke of arriving at the site and being allowed through the police line to retrieve the damaged Torah scrolls, to lift up the scrolls that had been thrown from the ark and left undressed on the floor.
Initially shaken, he approached the scrolls with tears streaming down his cheeks. He thought of his grandmother, who had escaped Germany in the 1930s. And he thought too of those others from her family who did not survive, perishing in the flames of Auschwitz. But as he lifted the Torah scroll, rather than fear and hurt, he suddenly felt strength and determination coursing through his soul.
“Perhaps,” he later said, “what these evil people did not know about us is that the Jewish response to adversity is to grow from it.”
The scroll he found himself holding was badly damaged, burned and torn. As he looked down at the parchment in his arms, he saw that it was ripped next to the curses of Bilaam. “But from his curse there came only blessing.”
As he notes, “…there is fire that destroys and there is fire that forges strength, unity and resolve.”
As we mourn the recent passing of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l, long time president of Yeshiva University, our generation’s master darshan, the most articulate, sophisticated and thoughtful preacher of our times, I was prompted to look into his “Derashot Ledorot”, seeking insight into Ma Tovu. I was not disappointed.
“...then there must be something very special about it [Ma Tovu] that somehow reflects an aspect of the basic personality of the Jew and a deep indigenous part of the Jewish religious character,” Rabbi Lamm tells us. “That unique aspect of our collective character, that singularly Jewish trait which manifests itself in the choice of Ma Tovu under the conditions we mentioned, is the very ability to wring a blessing out of a curse. We say Ma Tovu not despite the fact that it was intended to harm us, but because of that very fact [italics mine]. It is Jewish to find the benediction in the malediction, the good in the evil, the opportunity in the catastrophe. It is Jewish to make the best of the worst, to squeeze holiness out of profanity. From the evil and diabolical intentions of Bilaam, ‘May you not have any synagogues and schools,’ we molded a blessing of Ma Tovu which we recite just as we enter those very halls of worship and study.”
We begin our daily conversation with God not with the words of the psalmist or the prophet but with Bilaam’s so that we may zechor nah – that we may remember not only past adversities but to remember to build in this present moment upon our of ashes, to construct out of rubble, “benediction out of malediction” and in doing so ensure a bright future.
Those who ransacked the UK Aish in Hendon could not have fathomed that “the Jewish response to adversity is to grow strong from it.”
I often think of an elderly woman I witnessed in shul, davening from an old, tattered siddur. Even from a distance, I could see the pages were ancient and the siddur itself was just about falling apart. When I next saw her come into shul, I asked her whether she would like for me to get for her one of the shul’s siddurim. In my mind, praying from its new, crisp pages would be a blessing. But her response to my suggestion was powerful and passionate.
“No, no,” she said. “I can only daven in my old siddur as long as I live. I davened with it in Auschwitz... I’ll daven with it forever... Little did they know I’ll be here to daven.”