Balaam’s words show power of community


I stood there on the bimah. The congregation sat before me, eyes raptly fixed upon me, smiles glowing with support. I could hear my own heart beat, and thought that surely my voice would be swallowed up inside my tightly closed throat. I took a deep breath and began to chant slowly: “Bar’chu et..” Suddenly, the years of Hebrew school and the months of preparation took over, and the words flowed more quickly: “…notein haTorah.” My eyes turned towards the scroll of the Torah and the letters flowed before me as I chanted the ancient words, telling the amazing story from this week’s Torah portion — the tale of the prophet Balaam, hired by King Balak to curse the people of Israel, only to discover that the only words he could utter were words of praise: “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. — How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”

For me, it was 37 summers ago that I stood on that bimah as a bar mitzvah, and I remember it as if it was yesterday. For our people, it was 3,000 years ago or more that Balaam stood unable to speak any words but praise, and we remember it still. We speak these words in our daily prayers, we recall the powerful lesson taught by our tradition, and relearned in every generation. We understand the power of community, of people, the potential for change implicit in people who stand together in unity.

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Balaam could not curse a people who appeared to be blessed. He was unable to speak badly of a people, camped out, tribe by tribe, appearing, at least from a distance to be unified and united, sharing common vision and purpose. Who knew what was going on within each Israelite tent, what struggles each family faced, what challenges each tribe knew? To the prophet viewing us from afar, we Israelites appeared to be a true community, united in purpose and in destiny, and Balaam could say nothing but “Wow! How good you appear, how blessed you seem to be!”

There are important simple lessons in this. Appearances matter. What we seem to be sometimes becomes what we are, at least to others. Living together in unity leads to others admiring us, and in turn to us all reaching our common goals. Speaking kindly leads to living kindly, and speaking blessings helps us to feel blessed.

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.