It is difficult to express the joy that I am feeling tonight as we celebrate Shabbat together for the first time, and as I stand on this bima looking out onto this congregation. What a magical moment for any rabbi and congregation; a time for us to worship together, to learn together, to feel God’s presence together. When it comes to sermons, there is a list of those that are the hardest to give; second from the top of that list is a “last” sermon, which I gave to my previous synagogue just two weeks ago, and of course, at the top of the list, the most difficult sermon, is the first sermon–the first time a rabbi speaks from the pulpit to the congregation. Whenever this happens, we rabbis hope and pray that the week we begin at a new synagogue will coincide with an appropriate and perhaps even fitting Torah reading. And, as fate would have it, this week synagogues around the world will be reading Balak, in the book of midbar, chapters and verses 22:2–25:9.
Many of you may be familiar with this story, which takes place in the middle of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness. The name of the parsha, Balak, refers to the name of the king of Moab, an enemy kingdom of the Israelites. In the parsha, Balak summons a seer or prophet named Balaam to go and curse the Israelites as they travel nearby his kingdom. Balaam, an interesting character himself, makes his way towards the cliff that overlooks the Israelite encampment and engages in a fascinating interaction with his donkey. As Balaam is traveling down the path towards the Israelites, God sends an angel to station himself in the middle of the road in front of Balaam and his donkey. While Balaam cannot see the angel, the donkey, having keen animal senses, can, and stops dead in his tracks. Frustrated that his donkey is not moving, Balaam strikes it with a stick, and in response, the donkey speaks. This alone is fascinating as it’s very rare in the Torah for an animal to speak. In fact, an animal hasn’t spoken since the serpent in the Garden of Eden. But this donkey does speak, and proceeds to berate Balaam, telling him that perhaps he should consider the donkey’s obedient history and take this as a sign that if the donkey has done so, it has been for good reason. At this moment, Balaam is now able to see the angel standing before him with a sword in his hand, and he quickly realizes why the donkey stopped in the first place.
The whole interaction is strange, and a little funny, so perhaps in a future class we can delve into it more deeply, but believe it or not, it’s not the part of the parsha that caught my attention this week. Rather, in the spirit of this being our first official gathering together, it is what happens next in our parsha that most moved me. After the donkey incident, Balaam continues his travels until he reaches the cliff looking over the Israelite encampment. Below him, he can see the many tents and temporary dwellings of the Israelites, and though he has been instructed to curse the Israelites by King Balak, God places different words in Balaam’s mouth. Instead of curses, Balaam offers a blessing. Looking upon God’s people, Balaam opens his mouth and says the words that many of you will recognize: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, “how fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”
These words make up only a small fraction of the beautiful poetry that God inspires Balaam to utter, but they are the words that are strongly in my mind this evening as I stand on this bima, this elevated stage, looking out unto all of you. Indeed, the words “Mah Tovu” were so inspiring to our predecessors that they put them into our morning liturgy, as one of the first words we should say or sing when we enter a synagogue. And the rabbis of the Midrash interpreted the tents of Israel to extend to modern day synagogues, so when we sing or say the words “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov” we are saying “how wonderful are your synagogues, O Jacob!” My wise predecessors realized that it is sometimes difficult for any of us to enter into a space wherein we come to meet new people, or even more difficult for us to enter a space wherein we would interact with God. The rabbis therefore felt that those words Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, “how fair are you tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” would invoke feelings of hospitality and familiarity, with words like “tents” and “dwelling places” helping us to realize that we are home.
You can imagine, then, how right this parsha felt to me this week. How appropriate for tonight, as I stand here as your new rabbi, as I admit to you feelings of anxiety since I am just meeting many of you for the first time, and as I am leading Shabbat services from a new bima in a new space. And for all of you, as well, as you encounter a new rabbi in front of you, and perhaps new congregants next to you. While the space may be familiar, new music has filled our sanctuary and a new atmosphere is being built. It can be scary. But this week, the blessings uttered by Balaam can provide us with comfort, that this is a beautiful synagogue, this tent of Jacob; it is a wonderful dwelling place for our members and guests, and when we enter, we should begin to feel at home, knowing that this is our tent, our dwelling place.
There is a Chasidic teaching that reminds us that, originally, this prayer was said silently and individually as people entered the synagogue and put on their tallit. The custom of putting on the tallit begins with putting it over our head and saying the blessing for wearing tallit. While everyone is coming in and getting ready for prayer individually, we can lose sight of the larger scene around us. The Chasidic teaching reminds us that as this is happening, if someone were to be standing over the sanctuary from above, “the Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents,” recreating the scene in our parsha. So often we think of our own personal rituals, our own feelings and emotions when we enter into a sanctuary, but tonight I hope we can see that, together, tallit or no tallit, we are creating a sea of tents of Jacob, and a safe and welcoming dwelling place for Israel.
As I speak from this bima, I look out and see the beauty of Judaism, that am Yisrael chai, the people of Israel live in this place; not only live, but sing and worship as one community. And as we are supposed to when we hear those words: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, “how fair are you tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!,” I am beginning to feel at home in this place, and I hope that together we will create a dwelling place of peace and comfort, to worship, to learn, to teach, and to grow.