Sermon: We, too, are blessed

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 July 2014

If you were making a feature film about the journeying of the Israelites, what would you do with the story of Balaam?

It is a story within the story – unconnected to that which happens around it.

It asks us to pan away from the main characters – the people we have come to know, for whom we have rooted, with whom we have laughed, commiserated, of whom we have despaired  – characters in whom we have invested all our attention.  Instead now we should concentrate on an interaction between two thoroughly unlikeable others who we have never met before.  A foreign king and a sorcerer for hire who seems to tell the truth but take the money nonetheless.

The people we care about – Moses and the Israelites – do not even know that this story is taking place – as one colleague put it, the threat to Israel is a Rumsfeldian “unknown unknown”.  And it remains so.  The whole story goes on away from the main narrative, is resolved within a few chapters, ends, is done.

Literarily it is a separate piece – a discrete story – with its own structure – distinctively made up of a series of threes: the messengers invite Balaam to go to Moab three times; the ass turns aside three times; Balaam strikes her three times; the king invites Balaam to curse three times, and he blesses three times.  his is a whole different piece from that which comes before and that which comes after.

It is even presented as discrete in a Torah scroll – the narrative of Balak and Balaam looks utterly different to the rest of our story – one long text, with no breaks.
It is a book within the book.
In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that it was exactly that – a separate Book of Balaam existed contemporaneous with the compiling of the bible, and this may be part transferred into our text, or our text may be based on the separate myths of Balaam.

All of which leads us to ask.  Why?
What is the function of this strange, comical, slightly sinister story, away from the main events?  Why is it brought in here?  What does it do for us?

To answer we need to ask what really matters in the story – what is of enduring significance?  And that seems to be the blessings, the first two of which we read this morning.
The narrative prose appears to be only a surrounding structure in order that we can hear Balaam’s blessings.  The most important things are not the story – not the ass, not the comedy, not the deceit, but the words that come out of Balaam’s mouth – the words of a man hired to curse, but only blessings come out.

These blessings, which reaffirm other blessings received by Israel in our narrative – using their language;
Blessings that promise Israel’s survival at a moment of vulnerability;
Blessings that allude to an Israel of great virtue.

The story of Balaam is about the other looking at Israel and being unable to say anything other than, “Wow, they are blessed” – due to the power of God, yes, but also because there is actually something special about the people.

This is why Balaam’s unintentional blessing becomes so significant in our lives – Ma Tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishknotecha Yisrael – how good your tents are, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.  It is used as a piece of liturgy to say as you enter into synagogue – it is an affirmation that this, that which we do here, is something beautiful.

And it matters that it is in the words of someone else.  To bless each other is commonplace.  To be seen as blessed from outside is rather extraordinary.  The externality of the blessing also encourages healthy, positive, self reflection – examination of ourselves – what is it that makes us special – what is it that the other sees that we maybe need to try hard to see?

The ancient rabbis, in trying to understand Ma Tovu Ohalecha came up with two very different answers, two different ways in which society can be blessed.
The first is through its institutions – Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud tells us that what Balaam saw were synagogues and schools.  The tents – places of worship; the dwelling places – houses of learning.  It is good institutions that make a good society, this says.  The second, more profound thing the rabbis emphasised are interactions.  Famously, a midrash says that what Balaam saw was the arrangement of the tents – arranged in such a way that all are within the community, but no two entrances face each other – a perfect balance of communal structure and individuality.  All are in, but as individuals, not as a faceless collective.

So the story of Balaam for all its weirdness actually does something amazing.
After all the pettiness of the Book of Numbers – the disputes, the arguments, the rebellions, the disappointments – spies, waters of Meribah, Korach – the Torah does something amazing.  It pans away and says ‘let us look at ourselves from the outside for a moment’.  Even those who want to curse us can’t do it – there is something essentially wonderful here – think about what that might be.

And we all need to do that once in a while.
Sometimes we all need to step away from the niggles of everyday life and imagine ourselves in the eyes of the other.  To ask what makes us blessed.
Sometimes we need to stop arguing with our families, if we are lucky enough to have them, to remind ourselves that we are lucky – what they give us – and we them.
Sometimes we need to stop despairing of our jobs, if we are lucky enough to have them, and be grateful that we do.
Once in a while, we need to step outside of our relationships and remind ourselves what makes them special.

This is true also of institutions.
Here, at Alyth, we can, by our natures be self-critical.
In many ways it is exactly what makes us strong – that we will always ask what we can do better.
But we too need to ask what makes us blessed.  The story of Balaam asks us to do that.

I was personally aware of the power of that from our recent involvement in the Jewish Leadership Council’s synagogue vitality project, in which we were selected to be an exemplar of successful synagogue life.  For once, we were asked not to be self critical, but ‘what makes you special’.  And so, I was allowed to celebrate what we have.  It needed someone outside to say it – appreciate what you have.
And again, at Chagigah last weekend – that sense that ours is a community which others look at and say, sometimes despite themselves: wow, you are blessed.

And we are.
Our institution is strong – the fabric may need touching up more than a bit, but the numbers are good, the services rich, the schools full.  If I could say one thing to us as a community, it would be to be proud of that – other communities are better at feeling good about themselves.  But looking at us, Balaam, and the rabbis of Tractate Sanhedrin would be impressed.  We should too.

And, most importantly, the interactions here are sacred.  How we are in this place, how we are organised, how we value, welcome, respect, look after, support one another.  That is what makes a community blessed.
When Michael Simon and I asked for nominations for this year’s High Holy Day Mitzvot, we received immediately over 200 names for only 100 or so mitzvot – and that did not include anyone on Council or Exec, who are not allowed to be nominated, or at that point anyone from the security team, or any of our Madrichim!  Over 200 members giving, contributing to the vitality of our community – to welfare, to our Chevra kaddisha, to social justice, to services – all contributing to a synagogue vitality that Balaam might see better than sometimes we do ourselves.

This does not preclude the desire to do better – we should be aware of our limitations.  But as I stand here, a tiny bit like Balaam looking over Israel from Rosh Pisgah, celebrating this morning the enormous contribution that so many make to the life of Alyth, you know, I can say Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov.

So, if you were making a feature film about the journeying of the Israelites, what would you do with the story of Balaam?  The last thing you should do is leave it on the editing room floor.  Because what it gives is perspective.
And if you were making a feature film about the life of any community, any people, you would need a moment like the story of Balaam.

Every Shul has its ABGMs of Meribah, its council meetings of Korach, has voices like those of the spies.

Sometimes you also need moments such as these, the story within the story – distinct from that which happens around it – a moment when you can take a step back, see yourself through the eyes of others, and say,
“You know, we too are blessed”.