It is not a phenomenon unique to Judaism, but we certainly have our fair share of it. We pluck away bits of text from of sacred scriptures – Torah, Talmud, the works of great sages, and elsewhere. We take these little nuggets and embrace them. We make them centerpieces and themes. Often we turn them into songs.
While doing so can have lots of positive effects – I certainly experience them as a Jewish musician – there is a caution to be noted. We are fond of accusing others of picking and choosing text to fit their interpretations. Glass houses.
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!
In our siddur, we have attached words from Psalm 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14, and changed and adapted one verse from Psalm 95:6 to this one verse from Torah, and for many, if not most people, that is their entire understanding of “Mah Tovu.” We have turned it into a paean to G”d’s love and the places where we worship.
I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. I’ll admit, the Mah Tovu from the siddur is one of my favorite mash-ups of text (and our siddur is replete with them.) It is a thoroughly beautiful and inspiring prayer, perfect for the start of worship.
However, even when we encounter these words in parashat Balak during our annual reading cycle, we tend to focus on them in our adapted context of their use in worship. Sure, most of us know the story of Balak and Bilaam. Talking asses are rare (well, maybe not these days, but that’s a whole different musing) and this is a particularly well-crafted narrative. We remind ourselves, when we use the one verse from this parasha in our worship services, of the story from where it came, but primarily with the vague notions that curses can be turned to blessings, that Israel is worthy of G”d's blessing, that an enemy of Israel was thwarted, and some reflections on what it means when one’s beast of burden speaks and reveals one’s own blindness to what is right in front of one’s eyes.
Context is everything. Two previous attempts were made by Bilaam to fulfill Balak’s wish to curse the Israelites. Twice they go up on a mountain, build altars, and sacrifice on them.
The first time, Bilaam states:
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר מִן־אֲ֠רָם יַנְחֵ֨נִי בָלָ֤ק מֶֽלֶךְ־מוֹאָב֙ מֵֽהַרְרֵי־קֶ֔דֶם לְכָה֙ אָֽרָה־לִּ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּלְכָ֖ה זֹעֲמָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
He took up his theme, and said: From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the hills of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel’s doom!
מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם יְהוָֽה׃
How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the LORD has not doomed?
כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃
As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations,
מִ֤י מָנָה֙ עֲפַ֣ר יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּמִסְפָּ֖ר אֶת־רֹ֣בַע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תָּמֹ֤ת נַפְשִׁי֙ מ֣וֹת יְשָׁרִ֔ים וּתְהִ֥י אַחֲרִיתִ֖י כָּמֹֽהוּ׃
Who can count the dust of Jacob, Number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!
Ok, that’s pretty innocuous. Next.
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר ק֤וּם בָּלָק֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע הַאֲזִ֥ינָה עָדַ֖י בְּנ֥וֹ צִפֹּֽר׃
And he took up his theme, and said: Up, Balak, attend, Give ear unto me, son of Zippor!
לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה׃
God is not man to be capricious, Or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, Promise and not fulfill?
הִנֵּ֥ה בָרֵ֖ךְ לָקָ֑חְתִּי וּבֵרֵ֖ךְ וְלֹ֥א אֲשִׁיבֶֽנָּה׃
My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.
לֹֽא־הִבִּ֥יט אָ֙וֶן֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־רָאָ֥ה עָמָ֖ל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וּתְרוּעַ֥ת מֶ֖לֶךְ בּֽוֹ׃
No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. The LORD their God is with them, And their King’s acclaim in their midst.
אֵ֖ל מוֹצִיאָ֣ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם לֽוֹ׃
God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.
כִּ֤י לֹא־נַ֙חַשׁ֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־קֶ֖סֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כָּעֵ֗ת יֵאָמֵ֤ר לְיַעֲקֹב֙ וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מַה־פָּ֖עַל אֵֽל׃
Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, No divining in Israel: Jacob is told at once, Yea Israel, what God has planned.
הֶן־עָם֙ כְּלָבִ֣יא יָק֔וּם וְכַאֲרִ֖י יִתְנַשָּׂ֑א לֹ֤א יִשְׁכַּב֙ עַד־יֹ֣אכַל טֶ֔רֶף וְדַם־חֲלָלִ֖ים יִשְׁתֶּֽה׃
Lo, a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts, Rests not till it has feasted on prey And drunk the blood of the slain.
That’s beginning to have some threatening overtones. Finally, after delivering the well worn verse 5 (i.e. the Mah Tovu) Bilaam goes on. It stays nice for a while, but at verse 8 it starts getting sinister.
אֵ֚ל מוֹצִיא֣וֹ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם כְּתוֹעֲפֹ֥ת רְאֵ֖ם ל֑וֹ יֹאכַ֞ל גּוֹיִ֣ם צָרָ֗יו וְעַצְמֹתֵיהֶ֛ם יְגָרֵ֖ם וְחִצָּ֥יו יִמְחָֽץ׃
God who freed them from Egypt Is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows.
כָּרַ֨ע שָׁכַ֧ב כַּאֲרִ֛י וּכְלָבִ֖יא מִ֣י יְקִימֶ֑נּוּ מְבָרֲכֶ֣יךָ בָר֔וּךְ וְאֹרְרֶ֖יךָ אָרֽוּר׃
They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you!
At this point, Balak interrupts with another hissy fit and Bilaam once again explains that as a prophet of G”d he can only say the words G”d puts in his mouth. Then Bilaam continues with one last, long zinger:
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃
He took up his theme, and said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true,
נְאֻ֗ם שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֔ל וְיֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹן מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃
Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who obtains knowledge from the Most High, And beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:
אֶרְאֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א עַתָּ֔ה אֲשׁוּרֶ֖נּוּ וְלֹ֣א קָר֑וֹב דָּרַ֨ךְ כּוֹכָ֜ב מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֗ב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ֙ פַּאֲתֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב וְקַרְקַ֖ר כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת׃
What I see for them is not yet, What I behold will not be soon: A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab, The foundation of all children of Seth.
וְהָיָ֨ה אֱד֜וֹם יְרֵשָׁ֗ה וְהָיָ֧ה יְרֵשָׁ֛ה שֵׂעִ֖יר אֹיְבָ֑יו וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עֹ֥שֶׂה חָֽיִל׃
Edom becomes a possession, Yea, Seir a possession of its enemies; But Israel is triumphant.
וְיֵ֖רְדְּ מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֑ב וְהֶֽאֱבִ֥יד שָׂרִ֖יד מֵעִֽיר׃
A victor issues from Jacob To wipe out what is left of Ir.
וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֔ק וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר רֵאשִׁ֤ית גּוֹיִם֙ עֲמָלֵ֔ק וְאַחֲרִית֖וֹ עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃
He saw Amalek and, taking up his theme, he said: A leading nation is Amalek; But its fate is to perish forever.
וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־הַקֵּינִ֔י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֵיתָן֙ מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וְשִׂ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖לַע קִנֶּֽךָ׃
He saw the Kenites and, taking up his theme, he said: Though your abode be secure, And your nest be set among cliffs,
כִּ֥י אִם־יִהְיֶ֖ה לְבָ֣עֵֽר קָ֑יִן עַד־מָ֖ה אַשּׁ֥וּר תִּשְׁבֶּֽךָּ׃
Yet shall Kain be consumed, When Asshur takes you captive.
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר א֕וֹי מִ֥י יִחְיֶ֖ה מִשֻּׂמ֥וֹ אֵֽל׃
He took up his theme and said: Alas, who can survive except God has willed it!
וְצִים֙ מִיַּ֣ד כִּתִּ֔ים וְעִנּ֥וּ אַשּׁ֖וּר וְעִנּוּ־עֵ֑בֶר וְגַם־ה֖וּא עֲדֵ֥י אֹבֵֽד׃
Ships come from the quarter of Kittim; They subject Asshur, subject Eber. They, too, shall perish forever.
Can you just imagine singing any those words to a song at the beginning of morning worship? Thank goodness the rabbis, in creating the siddur, chose to create a mash-up, plucking only the one line from Torah (though they could have used the immediately following verses 24:6-7 in keeping with the positive, upbeat tone.)
Nevertheless, I think there is value in always connecting the words mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov mishk’notekha Yisrael to their original setting, recalling that for Israel to become the nation, people, culture, and religion that it did, others had to die, or be dispossessed. That lesson is no less important today when we consider the modern state, medinat Israel. It is good to be reminded, in the midst of our joy, the suffering that had to occur to bring us to each and every shehehkheyanu moment we have experienced. Let our remembrance of the context of the Mah Tovu in parashat Balak be like the drops of wine we spill at Pesakh.
It’s not my intent to spoil for anyone, especially including myself, those spiritual moments that are often created in the reading or singing of the Mah tovu prayer at morning services. As I stated earlier, it is one of my favorite prayers, one of my my favorite textual mash-ups. Yet, as this prayer, in its many beautiful musical settings can comfort the afflicted, I feel some obligation to afflict the comfortable. My job is done.
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester
[Note: following the translation from the Septuagint, JPS uses Balaam. I prefer the more accurate transliteration of Bilaam (better yet, probably, is Bil’am.]
Other Musings on this Parasha
Balak 5777 - Bad Habits, Still
Balak 5775 - Stymied
Balak 5774 - Ball's In Your Court
Balak 5772 - Unvelievable
Balak 5771-Imperfect Justice is No Excuse
Balak 5770 - Beating Our Donkeys II (Revised and Updated 5758)
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5758/5761-Beating Our Donkeys