April 21, 2024
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Balak: How Good Do We Have It?

The calmness of summer days is a sweet feeling. Everyone is more relaxed. Children enjoy their newfound freedom. For me, a distinct and most beautiful part of the summer morning is walking up and down the streets, hearing the melodious voices of little children davening in their homes and summer camps. Hearing Ma Tovu from an innocent child is especially moving…and motivating!

The text of our prayers is a tapestry of verses woven from Torah, Nevi’im and some passages composed by the greatest men of Jewish history. Pesukei D’zimra consists of verses from Tanach, as well as Tehillim composed by David Hamelech. The Shema is written in the Torah. Every word of the Shemoneh Esrei was decided by the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly), 120 of the greatest sages. Aleinu, the closing prayer of each service, was composed by Yehoshua bin Nun. Hence, it is surprising, if not disturbing, that the first prayer of the morning, Ma Tovu, was composed by Bilaam—the wicked—who sought to curse and destroy the Jewish nation. Couldn’t we open with something from David Hamelech? Even young children who are just starting to learn how to daven and only recite a few selected prayers recite Ma Tovu. Why did this prayer, composed by Bilaam, merit to be the opening prayer of the day?

One explanation is given by the Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter 1847-1905). We are commanded in the haftarah of Parshas Balak (Prophet Micah) to remember what Bilaam and Balak attempted to do to klal Yisrael, as is stated, “Remember what Balak and Bilaam attempted to do to klal Yisrael.” The Sages would even have included parts of Parshas Balak in the reciting of the daily Krias Shema, but for its length! (Gemara Berachos 12b) The Chidushei Harim said that even though it’s not included in Shema, we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering what Bilaam and Balak attempted every morning by saying Ma Tovu, which is in Parshas Balak.

A second explanation comes through an incredible insight shared by the Lev Simcha—Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter (Gerrer Rebbe 1898-1992), who says Bilaam attempted to curse klal Yisrael many times and Hashem reversed his words of curse to words of blessing. However, when Bilaam finally articulated the words of Ma Tovu, his sincere intention was to bless the Jewish nation. This is why it says (Balak 24:2) “…and the Divine spirit of Hashem rested upon Bilaam.” Explains the Lev Simcha, the codifiers of the prayer wanted to emphasize in the very opening of our prayers that anyone who has a sincere desire to do good, even the wicked Bilaam(!), is recognized by Hashem and can even merit ruach hakodesh (Divine spirit). As we start each new day, we need to realize we have a new opportunity to connect to Hashem, no matter what we might have done the day before.

Still, what is so important in Parshas Balak that we are required to remember daily? What is so pivotal that it would have been included in Shema but for its length?

The opening verse states, “How beautiful are your tents, Yaakov, and the mishkenos of Yisrael.” The Sforno explains “tents” as the yeshivos, as it says, Yaakov Avinu was a yoshev ohalim—a dweller of the tent (which refers to his learning in yeshivos). Mishkenos is understood to mean the shuls. The Lev Simcha offers that the tents of Yaakov are the Jewish homes, and the dwelling places of Hashem’s presence are the shuls and the yeshivos.

I believe this is why we need to open our tefillos with precisely this verse each day. Ma Tovu—What is good? The answer is simple: a Jewish home, our shuls and yeshivos. We are to create an abode where we can bring the presence of Hashem into our lives through our prayer and proper behavior.

And why was Ma Tovu impervious to the evil intent of Bilaam? The Maharal explains that Bilaam listed 10 things with which he tried to curse the Jewish people unsuccessfully. Ten is considered the number of holiness, as indicated by the minimum number of people needed to recite Kaddish and Kedusha. The first of the Bilaam’s 10 is the holiest and that is found in Ma Tovu: the tents—the Jewish home, the mishkenos (shuls) and yeshivos. They are the “holy of holies” and therefore impervious to curses.

As we recite Ma Tovu each morning, let us integrate this concept of remembering how holy are our homes, shuls and yeshivos. Let’s be inspired to maintain their sanctity and decorum with proper speech and conduct and to conscientiously incorporate Torah in their midst.

Good Shabbos!

By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim

 Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch. PTI has attracted people from all over northern New Jersey, including Teaneck, Bergenfield, Paramus, Rockaway and Fair Lawn. He initiated and continues to lead a full multi-level gemara learning program in the evenings, gives halacha and hashkafah shiurim on Shabbat and, more recently, has spread out beyond PTI to begin a weekly Beit Medrash program with in-depth chavruta learning in both Livingston and Springfield, New Jersey.

 

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