In this week’s parsha, we encounter Balak, King of Moab, who was determined to wipe the Jewish people off the face of planet earth, joining forces with Bilaam, the infamous heathen prophet, who was equally obsessed with hatred of our people. Both Balak and Bilaam understood that the strength of the Jew is found in his speech, his words of prayer, his study of Torah. Therefore, they wanted to combat this power through speech–through cursing the Jewish people. Instead of curses however, G-d used Bilaam as a vehicle to praise and bless our people.
When Balak, King of Moab, spoke of the menace that the Jews represented to the world, he said “Behold, a nation has come out of Egypt and is covering the face of the earth” (Numbers 24:5), he was referring to the exodus in the past tense, but Bilaam, in repeating the same phrase, said “Behold a nation is coming out of Egypt (present tense) and will be covering the face of the earth” (future tense).
As evil as he was, Bilaam nevertheless perceived the strength of the Jewish people. He understood that to us, the exodus would never be just an historic event that happened thousands of years ago, but rather, something that was constantly unfolding, today and tomorrow and precisely because of that, we will forever be major players on the world scene. We remember and re-live our exodus, not only on the holiday of Passover, but every day of our lives through our prayers, our Sabbath and holidays, and our mitzvot.
Our past, present and future merge. Our constant awareness of the exodus, our indebtedness to G-d, has made the principle of hakores tov – gratitude, a pillar of our faith. This ideal of appreciation has become part of our Jewish DNA. It has forged us into a unique nation, endowed us with a sense of purpose–to give back and to make this world a better place. It is this sense of gratitude that defines our role and prompts us to joyously accept the responsibility of becoming G-d’s Priestly Kingdom–His Holy People and a light unto the nations.
Despite himself, throughout the parsha, Bilaam is forced to pronounce praises of our people. Instead of cursing, he must bless them. But from those blessings, we can discern what his curses might have been (just the opposite of what he said). So, for example, when he proclaimed, “Ma Tovu”- How beautiful are your tents Oh Jacob, your dwelling places, Oh Israel” (Numbers, 24:5), he was referring to the beauty of Jewish family life, the serenity of the Jewish home, and to our houses of prayer and Torah study.
Had he had his way, he would have cursed these bastions of strength, for he knew full well that that was the secret of our survival.. Not only did Bilaam fail, but we have taken his words and integrated them into our everyday life. To this moment in time, when a Jew enters a synagogue, he pronounces “Ma Tovu” – and when a young couple goes under the chuppah, it is this blessing of “Ma Tovu” that is proclaimed.
Indeed, “Ma Tovu – how beautiful it is that a new home is being forged in the eternal chain of Jewish history. How beautiful it is that there are Jews who despite Holocaust and the ravages of assimilation, enter synagogues and houses of Torah study, so that our covenant might live on. Yes, it is today that G-d gave us the Torah. Our history is our destiny.
By: Rabbi Osher Jungreis