Parshas Balak: Blessing from Curse

In the second of this week’s parshios (Chukas-Balak in Chutz la’Aretz), we learn of Balak, the king of Moav, who hired Bilaam, the Prophet/Sorcerer, to curse the Jewish nation.  As Am Yisrael was camped on the borders of the Promised Land, and as they had begun to conquer territory on Ever la’Yarden (the Eastern side of the Jordan River), Balak hoped to decimate the Israelites through incantations and curses.  Much to his dismay, Bilaam is unsuccessful in his attempts to curse the Jews.  Rather than curse them, G-d puts prophetic utterances into his mouth, and he blesses the nation with a series of beautiful blessings.

Perhaps the most famous of all of Bilaam’s blessings is the one with which we begin our daily tefillos every morning: מַהטֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל, How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel (Bamidbar 24:5).  The Sages teach us that this blessing refers to our batei midrashos and batei k’nesiyos – our yeshivos and our shuls, the bastions of our nation, from where Torah and tefillah emanate (Sanhedrin 105b).

While this is a very beautiful bracha indeed, the reality is that Bilaam wanted to curse, not bless, the nation!  Yes, G-d redirected his intentions and gave him words of inspiration to say, but this was not of his own volition.  Just like so many of our enemies throughout time, Bilaam was attempting to bring ruination, destruction, and curses upon Israel.

It is perplexing, therefore, that of all the thousands of moving pasukim (verses) found in the twenty-four books of Tanach, it is this very verse with which we begin tefillas Shachris every morning!  There are pasukim related to our Avos and Imahos (forefathers and foremothers), many pasukim related to the tenacity of Am Yisrael, and our Biblical heroes and heroines, beautiful and hopeful nevuos (prophecies) related to the geula and end of days.  And yet, the verse with which every Jew begins Shachris is from the prophecy of Bilaam ha’Rasha (Bilaam the wicked), mah tovu ohalech Yaakov

What lesson can be derived from this seemingly perplexing choice of words with which we open our daily prayers?  Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l teaches (in a drasha penned and presented in 1954), “If all of Israel has accepted it (this verse) and accorded it such honors, then there must be something very special about it that somehow reflects an aspect of the basic personality of the Jew and a deep, indigenous part of the Jewish religious character.

“That unique aspect of our collective character, that singularly Jewish trait which manifests itself in the choice of ‘mah tovu’ (to open our daily prayers)… is the very ability to wring a blessing out of a curse.  We say ‘mah tovu’ not despite the fact that was it intended to harm us, but because of that very fact.  It is Jewish to find the benediction in the malediction, the good in the evil, the opportunity in the catastrophe.  It is Jewish to make the best of the worst, to squeeze holiness out of profanity.  From the evil and diabolical intentions of Bilaam, for what he intended to say was, ‘May you not have any synagogues and schools,’ we molded a blessing of ‘mah tovu,’ which we recite just as we enter those very blessed halls of worship and study.

“… Mah tovu teaches, and reminds, us that there is some good in everything bad.  The greatness of humanity, the greatness of Judaism, consists of our ability to rescue that good and build upon it… Jewish history is rich in such examples of making the best of the worst, of transforming the curse into a blessing.  The Temple and sacrificial offerings were destroyed, so our forefathers reacted to the destruction with prayer, the ‘service of the heart.’  Jerusalem and its schools were ruined, so they decided that Torah is not dependent upon geography, and they built Yavneh, where they accomplished even more than in Jerusalem.  British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin refused to permit 100,000 Jewish refugees to immigrate into Palestine, so, having no choice, we proclaimed and built a State of Israel for over a million Jews… The Jewish way is blessing from curse.  We have never surrendered to curse.  We have always poked around in its wreckage, found the spark we were looking for, and converted the whole curse into one great blessing.  That is what is implied in reciting ‘mah tovu’ as the opening verse of our daily prayers.  We pray to G-d: continue that power within us, let us always make the best of the worst – blessing from curse.

“[And if it is so with our nation] it is so, and should be so, with every individual.  Misfortunes, should they never occur, have their redeeming qualities… In the inner shells of curse there lies the spark of blessing.  The aim and goal of prayer is not to change G-d, but to change ourselves… Whoever prays truly knows that somewhere, sometime, he or she has been caught in the web of ‘curse.’  And so we pray.  We pray and we want G-d to help us change ourselves.  What sort of change is it that we want?  The ability to change evil to good, curse to blessing.  We want to transform ourselves.  That is the spirt of the prayerful personality…How good and how fortunate is a people who can forever hope and smile, knowing that even if, Heaven forbid, curse could be its lot, it will wring out of it every drop of blessing.  This, indeed, is the greatest blessing.  Mah tovu’, how good” (Derashot Ledorot, Numbers, p.133-137).

Perhaps this very deep, insightful and relevant insight is one of the most powerful modern day interpretations of ‘mah tovu.’  Every morning we beseech G-d for our needs, wants, hopes and desires.  We praise, give thanks, laud and glorify Him.  We tell Him how we feel through the ups and downs in life.  But with what prayer do we begin our daily communion with G-d?  Mah tovu; please G-d, no matter what this day may bring, grant me the strength, courage, foresight, perseverance, equanimity and faith to change and channel every situation in life into one of great blessing.

And so, we do not recite this verse as the first of the day despite the fact that it was intended as a curse.  Rather, we recite this verse as the first of the day specifically because it was intended as a curse; a curse that was changed into a glorious blessing.

It is a lesson and reminder to our nation, and to all of us, as to how we must live our lives as faithful, devoted and believing Jews: מַהטֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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