"Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael."
"How Goodly are your tents O Jacob- Your dwelling places O Israel."
I say these words every single day without fail on my entering the Shul in the morning, and so do many of our fellow Jews throughout the world. It begins my day with this optimistic message of the beauty of Shul and community.
What do they mean? Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov- How goodly are your tents O Jacob- One explanation from the Gemara in Megillah is that they refer to the Synagogues and Yeshivot of the Jewish people wherever they may be, that the blessing is eternal.
And who originally said them?
It was Bilaam the Heathen Prophet in this week’s Sedra employed by Balak, the King of Moab to curse Israel; but try as he might the words that came out from his mouth were not curses but blessings.
And indeed Our Rabbis say that from the nature of the blessed that spurted forth from his mouth, you can deduce exactly what the curse was supposed to be. In other words, Bilaam wanted the exact opposite of what he achieved. He fully intended to curse Israel
Shelo yiheyu lachem batei knessiyot ubattei medrashot- That your Shuls and Yeshivot should not endure, yet he ended up only with blessing.
So the question is: There is no doubt that Bilaam intended to curse Israel, yet as he admitted to Balak in a later communication, “Even if you were able to give me a house full of gold and silver- I am unable to transgress the word of G-d- Everything that G-d puts into my mouth I have to say”.
Bilaam becomes a mere automaton.
So my question is, why do we commence each and every day when we enter Shul with the words said by a heathen prophet and sorcerer, who set about with the intent to curse Israel?
The question becomes more pronounced and aggravated when we hear the words of the famous 16th Century Halachist – the Maharshal- Reb Shlomo Luria who said in a responsa the following:
Ani matchil berov chasdecha umedaleg mah tovu she-amro bilam – veaf hu amro likllalah-
He says- I begin from the next line and I miss out Mah Tovu because it was said by Bilaam who intended to curse Israel.
In other words the Maharshal rejects saying Mah Tovu because of its negative source.
Yet we, by “we” I mean The Jewish people anywhere you go in the world, have accepted these words from Bilaam as part of our everyday prayers, no questions asked?
You’ve got to listen to this one because the message is simple but profound.
We recite mah Tovu – a prayer recited by a Heathen prophet Bilaam, the first thing that we say every morning when we come into shul because it symbolises the essence of Judaism.
And that is... the power to transform curse into bracha- blessing.
Bilaam intended with full sincerity to curse Israel- but he ended up blessing them.
The quintessence of Jewish history has been that we take a situation of kelaala- of curse- of negativity- of no hope, and we transform it into bracha- blessing= positivity- hope for the future.
And I can go throughout Jewish history and you can see the Mah Tovu.
The Churban Beit Hamikdash- Temple destruction- something about which we begin our national mourning on Shiva asar betamuz for three weeks.
Yet out of that negative experience comes a spark of positivity, a glimmer of hope, because when Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish people at the time of the destruction heard about the impending catastrophe, he went to see Vespasian the Captain of the Roman Legion- and he said to him:
“Give me Yavneh as a town where I can set up a Yeshivah – an establishment of Jewish learning- a makom Torah- a place where there would be Jewish continuity”
Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai knew the Temple was going to be destroyed but he found the positive in a very negative situation. We look back at what happened next in history. The Temple was destroyed- that was an inevitability, but Yavneh was alive and well.
And from Yavneh came the Sages of the Mishneh and the Talmud- and if it were not for the foresight of Reb Yochanan Ben Zakkai- we would have become lost in the quagmire of history. It was the ability of Reb Yochanan to see the Mah Tovu, the blessing out of the curse.
The positive out of the negative.
Right up to modern times. The most destructive and negative experience of our history-the holocaust- millions of Jews perished at the hands of their Nazi oppressors, yet out of those flames of destruction- when Jewish communities in Europe were literally reduced to atzamot yevashot- dry bones- yet out of that negativity, that period of no hope came the emergence of Medinat Yisrael- Our homeland.
And we look back at history and we praise those who had the prescience to look forward to see the mah Tovu- the positive out of an extremely negative situation. Against all odds they fought to build our land- that tiny strip of land –one of the smallest countries in the world- yet it has defied all natural phenomena to become the country Israel is today, despite the fact that there are people who still question its right to exist. Despite the fact that we are surrounded by millions of Arabs who have vowed to destroy us- Yet we hold our heads high because we are able to say Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaakov...