This week's Torah portion is my favorite, largely because I love the story so much, and it was my Bar Mitzvah portion. Parashat Balak takes on what seems like a farcical journey as the Israelites continue to wander and come upon the Moabites. Balak, King of the Moab, is fearful of Moses and the Israelites, so he summons Baalam, a professional curser, to go and blaspheme the Israelites and allow the Moabites to defeat them.
Just as Balaam is about to start his journey, God tells him not to go as this is not what God wants. Balaam listens and refuses to go, but after multiple attempts to not go, he acquiesces to Balak and proceeds on his way to curse the Israelites. En route, God sends an angel to block the path of Balaam's donkey. Balaam cannot see it and is baffled after the donkey refuses to advance multiple times; he becomes very frustrated and begins to beat his donkey. The tables turn, and the donkey actually talks and asks Balaam why Balaam is hitting him. Balaam, stunned, (and who wouldn't be if their donkeys began talking to them!) responds that the donkey is not going where he is supposed to. The donkey calmly responds, asking Balaam if he has ever let Balaam down before. Balaam responds, "No." At that moment the angel who is blocking the path appears, and Balaam understands what is going on.
Moments later, with Balak in his presence, Balaam blesses the Israelites three times rather than cursing them. This is the aegis of the prayer many Jews recite upon entering a synagogue, Mah Tovu. Uniquely, this is the only prayer in our liturgy written by a non-Jew. [i]
This week, I was privileged to attend the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) Conference with our new Director of Congregational Learning, Rabbi Ariel Greenberg. We explored what the ISJL has to offer and how it can enhance Agudas. It was motivating to learn about this incredible network of nearly 60 congregations throughout the South. The ISJL provides us with program ideas, adult education, religious school curricula, pre-school resources, and more. I was energized to see how we can truly integrate much of what the ISJL has to offer and take advantage of this incredible organization and its network.
When Balaam gets upset with the angel, his failure is in not seeing what is right in front of him, that the angel was blocking the path of his donkey. We, too, have not seen some of what was right in front of us. I'm thrilled to bring back all of the new information we were exposed to and begin implementing it with Rabbi Greenberg in the coming weeks and months.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
[i] Only the first part of the prayer is from Balaam, the end is from Psalms.