Balak 5779 – Ma Tovu

By: Dr. Jeffrey Buch

This Parsha tells one of the more entertaining stories of the Torah.  Balak fears for his Kingdom as the Israelites approach.  He knows that it will take extraordinary measures to defeat the Israelites, so he calls on Balaam.  Balaam is the only non-Hebrew prophet who can communicate with Hashem.  Balak sends his men to recruit Balaam with the promise of great riches for cursing the Israelites as they approach Balak’s Kingdom.  Balaam receives the message from Hashem that the Israelites are destined to displace Balak and the Amorites.  After much resistance to Balak’s request, Balaam agrees to come to his service with the proviso that Balaam will not voice any words about the Israelites, unless the Lord places those words in his mouth.

Along the way to the Kingdom of Balak, an angel of the Lord brandishing a large sword stands in the way of Balaam and his donkey.  The donkey can see this angel and stops in his tracks.  But Balaam beats the donkey to move forward on 3 occasions since Balaam cannot see the angel.  Finally, the donkey turns its head back toward Balaam and speaks directly to Balaam much to his surprise.  The donkey states why he stopped and why should Balaam not trust his loyal donkey who has served him faithfully for so many years?  Balaam finally sees the angel who then allows them to go forward to his appointment with Balak.

The climax of the story is when the Israelites draw near Balak’s kingdom.  In the presence of Balak and the Amorites, although Balaam tries his best to curse the Israelites, he cannot help but sing the praises of the Israelites that Hashem places in Balaam’s mouth.  The prayer of Balaam’s praise we know as Ma Tovu.  This has since become the prayer we sing to begin the morning service when we enter the Sanctuary.  There is more I can say on this, but now I must stop and redirect to the message this Parsha spoke to me.

Balak typifies the nature of a person who lives a transactional existence.  If Balak pays enough money to Balaam, why shouldn’t Balaam be able to curse the Israelites in accordance with their contract?  But life is so much more than just a series of sequential transactions orchestrated by the highest bidder of material goods.  Balaam cannot help but state the exceptional nature of a people wedded to the ideal of a heart and faith-based existence.  Transactional living is the most basic level of existence.  Heart and faith-based living is elevating and inspiring.  It creates a platform for emotional and spiritual evolution that elevates humans above an animalistic survival-kill or be killed- level of existence.

If we simplify a heart and faith-based existence and distill it to the basics of a process, our tradition sees life in the following formula.  Humility leads to a diminishment of pride that allows time and space to forgive most anyone and anything.  Forgiveness softens the heart which enables the ability to Love.  The feeling of Love is so strong and such a positive emotion, that it leads to an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  Gratitude leads directly to Joy.  A joyful heart opens the door to generosity and the ability to give.  Generosity emotionally moves the giver and the receiver toward an inspired heartfelt faith in the intertwined destiny of all humankind.  Recognition of our intertwined and mutually dependent human destiny diminishes individual pride, leaving room for Humility and Hashem’s formula starts anew.  So Please practice and remember:  Humility leads to Forgiveness that leads to Love that leads to Gratitude that leads to Joy that leads to Generosity that leads to Inspiration that leads back to Humility as the cycle repeats.  Ma Tovu my friends!  Shabbat Shalom!