July 2019, Parshat Balak

Dear Friends,

There are certain days in one’s life that are hard to forget. I joyfully added last Sunday to the list of my most meaningful days, following of course from my Bar-Mitzvah, wedding, the birth of each of my children and now my induction as senior Rabbi of the Ark Centre.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all of you who made it such a meaningful and memorable day. The work to continue to better and grow our Kehillah starts now. I would specifically like to thank Rabbi Shneur and Lisa for the incredible handover. You been a pillar of strength to our community and Mushka and I are only able to take on the role of Rabbi and Rebbetzin with clarity of purpose due to the big shoes we are filling. Special thanks also to the ARK Centre Team Lisa, Jackie, Lynn and Board members who spent hours preparing such a beautiful evening!

In addition, seeing so many members of our Kehillah at the induction supporting both Mushka and myself was heart-warming. We do not take this role for granted and we look towards the future with excitement and big plans.

Which brings me to this week’s Parsha, Balak. As a child one of the first prayers you are taught in the Siddur is the verse of ‘Mah tovu ohalecha ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael – How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

This often repeated line is used when entering a place of worship or a communal space. In this week’s Parsha, this very verse was uttered by none other than Bilam, one of only a few non-Jewish prophets recorded in the Torah.

One of the famous commentators, Sforno, notes that this verse is used when entering communal spaces as they benefit the whole community and not just individuals.

The Parsha itself recounts a saga in which Balak, the King of Moav, seeks out Bilam, to come and curse the Jewish people. What is perhaps less considered is the aspects of Balak’s personality that lead him to seek out Bilam to curse the Jews.

Balak was wealthy and had the status of a King in the powerful country of Moav. However, in a similar fashion to other despotic leaders around the world, he was suffering from paranoia.

Although the Jewish people were camped in the desert near Moav, they were not specifically bothering Balak. Yet, he still felt the need to use his power to speak ill of them due to their differences and his dislike of them.

Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Talmud, in Bava Batra, that when Balak’s hired cursing agent, Bilaam, saw that the doors of the Jewish people’s tents did not face into each other, it caused him to bless the people with the famous lines of Ma Tovu.

What was so good about the fact that the doors did not face each other? Why did this merit such a blessing?

The Talmud explains that this symbolized the fact that the Israelites respected each other’s privacy by not peering into each other’s tents. In other words, the Israelites respected community cohesion and the right to be different, unique and individual without trespassing an individual’s boundaries.

In this Kehillah we strive to respect the rights of people to think and act differently and treat others who have differences of opinion with respect, even if their positions do not fully align with our own. And this is the fundamental message of this week’s Parsha.

When Bilam notes that the tents of Israel were good, he was noting the inherent differences among us that help us to raise our voices to have individual opinions. He was noting the importance of standing up to the kind of attitude that Balak was portraying through hiring him to curse those that were different. An attitude in which racism, fear and xenophobia was permitted.

And this is the beauty of our people. The common phrase of two Jews, three opinions rings true. But the real beauty is when we can accept these differences between us and still maintain the respect that each individual deserves in order to fulfil their part in the world.

Wishing you and your families a Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Gabi