How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Each morning, as we enter the santuary, we hear the famous verse from Parashat Balak, often sung to a beautiful melody:Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk'notecha, Yisrael, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel." This prayer is part of the Birchot HaShachar, the "Morning Blessings," and consists of several biblical verses that express worshipers' joy at coming into the sanctuary and their reverence for the Divine Presence.
The parashah tells the story of Balak, king of Moab, and Balaam, a sorcerer. When Balak sees the Israelites' victory over the Amorites, he is alarmed. Fearing that the Israelites are too powerful to defeat in battle, he sends for Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites. At first, God forbids Balaam to accept this mission, but later God allows him to go if he agrees to obey God's commands.
In Moab, Balaam tells Balak to build him seven altars. Balak does as Balaam bids, and they sacrifice a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam speaks with God and proceeds to bless Israel. Enraged, Balak takes Balaam to two other places and repeats the sacrificial process each time. But in each place, when Balaam opens his mouth to curse the people of Israel, only blessings emerge.
Why did God prevent Balaam from cursing the Israelites? Why was it necessary to turn the curse into a blessing? According to Nehama Leibowitz, "Some commentators suggest that this was done to teach Balaam a lesson, that he was not his own master. No magic rites (build me seven altars, etc.) could prevail over the Supreme Master. He had no choice but to utter the words the Almighty had put into his mouth" (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, 1981], p. 304).
Another reason for God's turning the curses into blessings was to benefit Israel. Since the Israelites grew up in Egypt, where there was considerable superstition and sorcery, they might take Balaam's curses seriously and be demoralized. They might also feel uplifted by his blessings. Joseph ibn Kaspi compares God to a friend: "A true friend will spare his friend mental anguish and concern, even if he knows no danger will ensue" (ibid., p. 304).
Isaac Abravanel, a fifteenth-century commentator, also suggests that God was concerned for Israel's safety. He states, "Had Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would have plucked up the courage and gone to do battle with Israel on the strength of his curses. But when they heard how God had turned them into blessings, they would then realize who was Master . . . and would lose all desire to fight His people. From this point of view, the turning of Balaam's words into blessing served a very useful purpose" (ibid., p. 305).
Finally, according to Yalkut Me'am Lo'ez, "Balaam did not have it in his power either to bless or to curse. The blessing was redundant — God had already blessed — and the curse was ineffective. Why then did God prevent him from cursing? Because having foreseen Israel's future sins and punishments, God did not want the nations to say, 'It was Balaam's curse that caused it,'" (quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,066).
It's important to note that "among ancient and primitive peoples, a curse was more than an expressed wish for evil, it was also considered a method of translating such harmful efforts into reality" (ibid., p. 1,061). The Babylonians believed in the power of curses and relied on professional sorcerers to curse their enemies before battle. The Israelites also believed in curses. Even God was troubled by Balaam's potential actions and decided to compel him to bless the people instead. In this way, the Torah reflects the serious nature of pronouncing curses and blessings.
When we hear Mah Tovu during the worship service, it reminds us of Balaam's blessings of the Israelites. We often come to services with much on our minds—the stresses of the day, our worries, the tragic events in the world. As a result, we might think of cursing. May we be like Balaam and hear God's words so that we, too, may turn our curses into blessings.
By the Way
- Balaam praised the tents of Jacob because the arrangement of the entrances made it impossible for a family to see inside the tents of others, showing respect for privacy. This became the source for the ruling that one may not build a door directly opposite the door of a neighbor or make a window in line with a neighbor's window. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 60a)
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel . . . "Your tents" — your external appearance must be that of Jacob, a lower level, while "your dwelling places" — your interior — must be of the level of Israel. (Ba'al Shem Tov, cited in Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Torah Gems, vol. 3 [Tel Aviv: Y. Orenstein, Yavneh Publishing House, 1998], p. 128)
According to the Rabbinic interpretation, the 'tents' are the 'tents of Torah', and the 'tabernacles' (lit. 'homes') are the Synagogues. There loomed up before Balaam's mental vision the school-houses and synagogues which have ever been the source and secret of Israel's spiritual strength. (Pentateuch and Haftorahs, ed. J.H. Hertz [London: Soncino Press, 1950], p. 678)
The rest of the Mah Tovu prayer is composed of a number of verses from Psalms: Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14. (Lesley Silverstone)
- What are the blessings in your life?
- How do you turn your curses into blessings?
- Psalm 62:5 states, "With their mouths they utter blessings but in their hearts they curse." In contrast to this statement, how can we be more honest with ourselves and with others? Is there ever a time when it's appropriate to "curse"?
At the time of this writing in 2005, Lesley Silverstone was the regional educator for the Pacific Southwest Council of the URJ and the immediate past president of NATE.