Mah Tovu Ohalecha! On Windows, and Pews

First d’var torah at Judea Reform Congregation – July 3, 2015….

These windows, and these pews….they blew my mind when I first walked into this sacred space in November of last year. One doesn’t want to get too far ahead of oneself during the interview process, but I found myself imagining what it would be like to pray in such an open and welcoming space, where the pews are curved to bring worshippers face to face, and the world makes its presence felt with an abundance of natural light. Months have passed since that November day, and things worked out just as I’d dreamed. I know the answer now: It feels great.

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisra’el. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” With those words does the Balaam, the protagonist of this week’s parashah invoke blessing upon the Israelites as they make their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. He didn’t set out to offer them blessings, of course. A prophet for hire, he was engaged by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Balak hoped to gain an advantage over Israel in war through the act of cursing them. If that sounds preposterous…well it is. Hilarity ensues, donkeys talk, and King Balak tries again and again to coax a curse out of Balaam, who is unable to perform. He can only say what God puts in his mouth, after all, and God wants Israel blessed. We’ll pick up near the end of the story, on page 903 in the Eitz Hayim commentaries…

Of all the blessings God could have planted in Balaam’s mouth, why compliment them on their tents? Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, how lovely are your tents, O Jacob. It’s odd, standing out even amidst a pretty odd parashah. One line of commentary, from another time, turn Balaam’s words into a lesson about modesty: What Balaam noticed was that the Israelites arranged their tents so that the flaps faced away from each other. Arranged just so, no one had an easy view into his neighbor’s business. And when Balaam saw that the Israelites’ morality extended even to how they made camp, he knew that Balak and his people were no match. And so, How beautifully arranged are your tents, O Jacob!

Other commentaries go in a different direction. For these teachers, the ohalim and mishkenot of the verse are the synagogues and houses of study which would stand at the center of our communities centuries after Balaam spoke his words. In his prophetic trance, “eyes closed yet open,” as the text has it, he is able to see into the future, to understand the role that learning and spirit will play in the life of this People. In that state he sees clearly: How could such a people fall to Balak? And so, How beautiful are the tents and dwelling places in which you will study and pray, O Jacob!

It’s this second set of commentaries that drew my attention this year, as I mulled over what to say about Parashat Balak at my very first service as your Rabbi. If Balaam was speaking about synagogues and schools, I found myself wondering, what would a latter-day Balaam have to say about this synagogue? Would he be as impressed as I by the these windows, these pews? If he could gaze upon this ohel, this mishkan, what blessings might he utter? I have a few guesses.

I think his words, like those of Balaam of old, would be as much charge and challenge as blessing. He’d be more poetic and polished than he is capable of being in my imagination right now, because he wouldn’t have spent the previous couple of weeks driving across the country and unpacking boxes. But the essence of his message would be this: “May the architecture of this space be mirrored in the spiritual geography of these people. May they always be turned toward one another in service, even as their faces are turned toward one another in prayer. And may the sanctuary, peaceful shelter that it is, never be cut off from the world around it.”

And I know that we’re up to that challenge. I know because of what I’ve seen during my first few days on the job:

  • I’ve seen the way Judea is respected in the community, its light shining through these windows to illuminate injustice and hold power accountable. First day on the job, and I was included in the justice round table with Attorney General Lynch. First day on the job. They didn’t know me from Adam…but they sure knew Rabbi Friedman, and they knew that you don’t bring together interfaith leaders in Durham without including the Rabbi of this congregation.
  • I’ve seen the way Judea values learning. From leaders of the religious practices and adult ed committees, to Bar Mitzvah boys, to my talented colleagues on our staff, so many of the conversations I’ve had have been infused with Torah.
  • Mostly, I’ve seen the way that these pews do mimic in space what happens, again and again, in the space between two hearts. I refer to the the warmth of your welcome to the Bachs, but not only to that. I’ve had the chance now to see, a little bit, the way you care for one another. The way you all pitch in. They way you include the unfamiliar face. These may seem like little things, but they’re not. Lots of congregations describe themselves as “warm and welcoming,” or “heimish.” This one, at least from the vantage point of this new face, really is.

Mah Tovu Ohalecha, Judea Reform! Minds engaged in Torah, hearts turned toward one another, eyes on the prize of justice…and no longer only merely imagining what it will feel like to pray, learn, and act together. The time is here; let’s get to work!

One thought on “Mah Tovu Ohalecha! On Windows, and Pews

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