Balak–Mah Tovu

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
     Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)

The Jewish prayer service does not begin with a call to prayer, nor words of praise, entreaty or benediction (though of course the service contains many examples of all of these).  We begin, instead, with the above-quoted words from the prophet Balaam.   In reciting them we step outside ourselves and behold ourselves, as from a mountaintop, encamped on the plain.  We are beautiful in our array, in our collective effect.

By opening the service in this way we  invoke “synagogue space” which is, as Rabbi Jim Goodman writes, “a large space, much larger than it looks because when you walk through these doors, you walk into Casablanca, into Jerusalem, into Minsk, into Baghdad, into Strasbourg—into this space where Jews have sung the same song to God for generations.  When you enter here, you have entered a larger space than you see.  Does it belong to you or do you belong to it?

“We belong to something bigger than ourselves. We belong to God, we belong to the Jewish people, we belong to history, we belong to our glories and our defeats, we belong to each other, and we belong to ourselves.”    We locate ourselves within these concentric circles, and let the community’s energy and intention bear us up as on eagle’s wings.

This link will take you to a lovely, classical/concert setting of these words by composer Ernst Bloch.  If you can carve out a tiny oasis of quiet right now, listen to at least the first three minutes, the very beginning of the service.  [The Hebrew translates thus:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)  As for me, through the abundance of your steadfast love, I will come into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple  in awe of you.” (Psalm 5:7)]

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