Sermon: Balak – What you see is what you get

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 July 2018

If you open up pretty much every high quality sefer Torah scroll that has been written since the nineteenth century you will see a remarkable phenomenon of scribal artistry.    There are around 250 columns of writing to make a Torah scroll, all hand written with a quill pen dipped into natural ink.   The columns are all perfectly straight on both sides, an effect achieved by stretching some of the letters, and occasionally when it goes a bit wrong by squashing them.   The spacing itself is an extraordinary art because the aim is to achieve something very special.  That is to make sure that the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ‘vav,’ appears as the first letter of every single column apart from four in the entire Torah.

The tradition, since the thirteenth century, is a reflection of the word for a curtain hook – which is itself ‘vav’ – as if the columns of the Torah hang by the same hooks by which the curtains of the Mischan, the original desert tabernacle hung. (Scribing the Tabernacle – A visual Midrash, David Moster). 

One of these four columns which do not begin with a vav are the opening words of the third of Balaam’s prophetic words of blessing over the Israelites in today’s portion.   It tells you how significant these words are.    In every Torah of quality over the past couple of hundred years the words “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov, mishc’notecha Yisrael” (Numbers 24:5) are at the top of a column.   This column is the only one in the Torah that starts with the letter mem.  Though not all scrolls followed this, the tradition of starting this column with a ‘mem’ stretches back to the eleventh century (attested in Machzor Vitry 519).

These words mean “How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”   They are positive about Israel as a people.   They are encouraging. They have been used for centuries as the opening words on coming into a Synagogue however grand or however basic.  They begin pretty much every service in a Progressive Synagogue so that we start coming together as a community in positive frame of mind.

It is highly significant that in the Torah the words are spoken by a person who is looking on at the Israelite community but is not himself an Israelite.  Balaam is of course a prophet from another people, hired to curse the Israelites but simply unable to do so because of what he sees with his own eyes.   It matters a lot to Jews as a people to hear others saying positive things about us – so much so that we are prepared to break a tradition of starting every column of the Torah with the same letter so that we can highlight when it happens!

You can see that this Jewish neurosis is alive and well if you look at the entire content of the first seven pages of this week’s Jewish Chronicle.    Prince William visits the State of Israel, the first official British royal visit ever, and the judgement of the Jewish Chronicle editorial team is that this is so significant to the Jews of Britain that basically it is the only story!    Prince William did indeed do a Balaam – he turned up saw and said lovely things:  “There is, and I’ve seen it already, an essential vibrancy to this country.  From the early stories of the kibbutzim, to the revival of Hebrew as a living modern language, to the hi-tech economies that we see here around us in Tel Aviv – the modern story of Israel is one of inventing, creating, innovating and striding confidently into its future.” (JC 29th June 2018, p.2)   The majority of the Jewish community of Britain positively kvelled.   There is nothing stronger than a person who sees us from outside saying that we have built something special.

Balaam and Prince William give us special pride because they see us through fresh eyes.   But you don’t have to see something completely new for the power of your positive speech to make a difference.  There is a strong Jewish tradition that the way we speak about people and to people should wherever possible be positive.

In Pirke Avot (2:7), the Words of our Sages, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, the preeminent Rabbi of the last years of the first century, speaks about his students in a way that was recorded for all time:

“He used to recount their [foremost] qualities: R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern which loses not a drop; R. Joshua b. Hananiah, happy is she that bare him; R. Jose, the priest, is a pious man;  R. Simeon b. Nethaneel is one that fears sin, and R. Eleazar b. Arach is like a spring that [ever] gathers force.”

How lovely it must have been for the great Rabbi’s students to hear how much their teacher appreciated them, presumably many times, as these words were written down for posterity.

It’s easy to spend your time complaining about people, picking holes in their behavior or your perception of their personality or skills.   But it doesn’t create a better world nor encourage people to work with you nor raise people up.   Traditionally, every Shabbat, parents are duty bound to bless their children with positive words, not to scold them for what they have been doing during the week.   We are asked to say to our sons “May you be like Eprhaim and Menasseh”, two tribal leaders of our past, and to our daughters “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”.   That is, may you be the best in yourselves and I believe you can be.  Judaism aims to raise people up, wherever they are starting from:  Like Balaam we call a raggle taggle desert encampment beautiful and good.  We call the stroppiest teenage girl or the most lobosy boy a potential hero of our people every single week.

As we studied in our Shiur this morning, Balaam was not able to keep up his positive ways of speaking and being.  Once God was no longer pushing him to bless and not to curse he turned, as it were, to the dark side and became a fighter against Israel, dying in battle against the Israelites a few chapters after he says “Mah Tovu – How lovely are your tents O Jacob.”

For this reason, our Rabbis decided that he must have gone back to a negative way of being, teaching and speaking.  So in Pirke Avot (5:19) he appears again, hammering home the message that being positive about people really matters.

“The disciples of Abraham, our father, [possess] a good eye, a  humble spirit and a caring soul. the disciples of Balaam, the wicked, [possess] an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a pushy soul.”

The word for good eye is Ayin Tovah and for evil eye is Ayin Raah.   The way in which you look at people, the attitude you have before you speak to them or about them determines whether what you say is going to be worthwhile or destructive.

At the end of this service we will do the same as Jews in every Synagogue in the world.   We will drink a little wine and eat a little bread at our Kiddush.   However grand or basic that Kiddush might be – whether it be a few old biscuits or a banquet of kosher sushi as can be found in the more ostentatious Kiddushim we will say exactly the same words.  We will bless the wine and the bread.   We will begin together positive and then the fellowship of being together will take over and outweigh whatever the quality of the food might be.  Don’t worry, our Kiddush is always nice!

With positive words we create positive feelings, we see things with the eye of God, we who are in the image of God.   We see the good future in a community, we see the possibilities for every person and we see the potential in every situation.   If it’s just a vav that just means “and” in English, and nothing happens – but if its “mem” that means how good and being positive and speaking positively is the way to a world worth living in.