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Seeing the good

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Just about a month ago, Rabbi Hirsch and I came outside here into the place formerly-known-as--the-second-parking-lot, and saw this tent standing for the first time. It was completely empty- just tent pegs and a top… really not much to look at, at all. Even though the tent itself was no more than the mere suggestion of a holy place, my first reaction was “wow.”

Tonight, as we mark our 4th Shabbat here together, looking at this tent with all of you in it--- hearing the voices of our friends who join us on zoom, my reaction is a resounding “WOW WOW WOW WOW”. Or perhaps more appropriately: Oh, my God.

Perhaps like me, the last month has been for you one of disorientation and reorientation. Like the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s house lands with a thud, and suddenly the world is technicolor, my experience of these last few weeks has been one of startling and dazzling vibrancy. The world we inhabited for over a year certainly was a muted one--- in some ways literally, as we prayed together “on mute”--- our world taking on a certain monotone quality. And then, vaccine by vaccine, voice by voice, we have found ourselves inching--- and lately, it has felt like sprinting, to some new sense of normalcy.

Just as summer arrives, the muted, monotone world has become dizzyingly colorful. The brilliant blue skies and lush green trees are matched only by the color of graduation caps and gowns and celebrations, birthday parties, and reunions with family and friends bring to our world.

Perhaps like me, there have been a few moments when all of that vibrant color has actually become blinding; where after a year of so little stimulation and input, it has felt like too much.

And somehow, as always, Torah comes along--- and offers us unique wisdom made for this moment.

Parashat Balak is just one of those unforgettable Torah portions. A talking donkey. A devious king bent on cursing the Israelites. And a foreign prophet--- who looking at the assembly of the Israelites together, this mixed multitude in their encampments, cannot help but utter words of blessing.

Out of this week’s Torah portion, and specifically out of the mouth of a renegade prophet, we encounter the words:

Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.

How good are your tents, O Jacob--- how lovely your dwelling places, O Israel.

These words of blessing echo forward into history, to this very moment. Imagine with me, for a moment--- what someone totally foreign to our community might see if they were standing outside our tent right now, looking in.

A collection of human beings. Young and Old.

Sitting together, singing together, praying together--- breathing together.

They would see people at rest. People in thought. People reflecting and offering their own blessings of gratitude.

They would see people celebrating, people mourning. They would hear beautiful music, and they would hear the silence.

And what’s more- let’s not forget what a person standing just outside this tent right now wouldn’t see: they wouldn’t see all of the beautiful members of our community who are able to join us from home right now, due to the wonders of technology and the wonderful humans who work to make that happen.

Let’s not underestimate how remarkable that all is.

Just four weeks ago, none of this was yet possible.

When Balak, the king of Moab calls upon the foreign prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam resists--- insisting that he cannot speak against what is true, and what God asks of him. And yet, Bilaam’s path to speaking words of blessing isn’t straightforward. He stumbles toward that blessing. He needs convincing, really. When finally, he utters those words of blessing, saying unequivocally: Mah tovu--- How good all of this is, it is only after an encounter with God. It is only then, that our Torah teaches us that Bilaam, this renegade prophet with much to lose and little to gain by going against Balak feels the spirit of God upon him, and offers beautiful words of blessing.

And this is where we come in.

This is where each of one of us who made the decision to log-in to Zoom tonight, or to drive down to State Rd. and join us in this tent comes in.

These words don’t stay in Torah for long---

Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov becomes a fixed part of Jewish liturgy by the middle ages. A manuscript called Mahzor Vitry, a 14th century prayerbook from Northern France shows that not only were these words “Man tovu” part of the morning service, but they were written in beautiful and uniquely large script to amplify its importance.

From the mouth of a foreign prophet, to the lips of anyone entering a synagogue to pray--- these words take on expanded meaning, and become part of patchwork prayer that we now today call “Mah Tovu”.

First, let’s highlight how amazing that is: these words, drawn from a person sent to curse the Israelites, are offered as blessing upon noticing our ancestors there in the wilderness. And then, the wisdom of these words resonate down through the centuries.

I want to suggest tonight that one of the reasons these words resonate so deeply throughout Jewish history, is that both as humans, and as inheritors of a 5000 year Jewish tradition, we know how easy it would be to offer curses. We don’t need the King of Moab to tell us to do that. We know how easy it would be to curse what we see--- to complain, to criticize, rather than to bless.

These words have been a part of our communal prayer now for hundreds and hundreds of years--- they serve as both a reminder and an aspiration for who we strive to be when we arrive at a house of worship.

Our own prayerbook, Mishkan T’fillah, notes that Mah Tovu as it appears in it’s full form is meant to be a song of approach--- words we sing and say when we arrive at the synagogue.

These notes describe to us how we are to approach the synagogue:

From a distance--- perhaps as you make your way down State Road and first see that sign for Hevreh as you arrive, you are meant to say “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov—How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel.”

Upon arriving at the door to the synagogue, we are to stop momentarily to arrange our clothes properly and say “Va’ani b’rov chasdecha… I, through Your abundant love, enter your house.”

Then, making your way in, to the sanctuary--- to this Ohel Moed, you are to enter with dignity and awe, saying “eshtachaveh el heichal kodshecha…. I bow down in awe at Your holy temple. I love Your temple abode, the dwelling of Your glory.”

Walking in a bit further, bowing again, you say “ va’ani eshtachaveh…” I will humbly bow down low before Adonai.’

And finally, these notes describe: You should leave some tzedakah for the poor, as much as you can afford—and then concentrating deeply within yourself say the words “Here I stand, ready and willing to perform the commandment, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”. Then you may pursue the love of God. [1]

In other words: we are meant to approach this holy place with humility and awe, and a sincere desire to live out the words “love your neighbor as yourself.”

I love this embodied description of this prayer: it is a fully physical and emotional posture of openness and blessing. It requires us to come to this place, ready to encounter one another--- ready to speak words of blessings, even when complaint or curse may spring more readily to the tongue.

I want to name that this is not always easy:

It’s been a hard year, and I do think we have much work ahead of us individually and as a community to heal what has been broken, and grieve what has been lost. Certainly, each of us could come up with a list of things to curse about what the experience we have each lived through.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us has a narrative in our minds about ourselves — who we are, where we came from and where we are going. We consciously and unconsciously create this story by taking the disparate fragments of our lives and assembling them into a coherent whole. It is what Dan McAdams, a personality psychologist at Northwestern University, describes as our “narrative identity,” an explanation of how we became the people we are today. One of the discoveries that Dr. McAdams has made in his extensive research is that there is a difference in the way people put together their own narratives: some people tell “redemptive” stories while others tell “contamination” stories. In a redemptive story suffering was not senseless but redeemed by the good. In a contamination story--- just the opposite: the good is ruined by the bad. [2]

We could look at this past year, and feel tempted by that King of Moav, encouraging us to curse it all--- to look at the encampment, even to look at this actual tent we sit in instead of inside in the sanctuary, and to say “This is not good.” Each of us here tonight has experienced an unprecedented year of restriction and loss, and to feel drawn to curse and complaint is not without reason.

Or, we could look at all we have been through, separately and together--- and tell a story of redemption. A story that leads to moments like this, where our suffering has not been meaningless. Where we did in fact save lives by staying apart, and where science and human ingenuity has allowed us to come back together. We can tell a story where we look at all of this, and we find that we cannot say anything other than “Mah Tovu. How good and fair are our tents--- how lovely these dwelling places we have created together.”

[1] Mishkan T’filah. P. 31


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