In the midst of our book of wandering, a Moabite sovereign engages a seer from a distant land in the hopes of cursing and thus defeating the Israelites. In the central irony of this fanciful tale that opens with the verb "vayar" (he saw), neither king Balak nor the hireling Balaam are able to "see" the Israelites. Balaam and Balak position and re-position themselves in an attempt to assess the multitude that "hides the earth from view"(22:5). The two travel from point to point without gaining the perspective they seek.
Only when the Holy One opens his eyes can Balaam see more than a portion of the people he has been sent to curse. For a moment, Balaam sees a community as it can be: a society of mutual dependence and trust, a community where each person is treated with dignity. And so he exclaims: "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael: How good, how fair are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel."
The rabbis who created our liturgy recognized the power of this sentence, and they positioned it as the opening of a daily prayer sequence that fixes the individual in the context of the community of Israel. They expand Balaam's blessing with four verses from Psalms written in the first person. By doing this, they enable worshippers to claim a place in the collective.
With these phrases, the rabbis transform Balaam's God of war into a God of "chesed," lovingkindness, and each Jew who utters these words becomes the prayer.
Balaam's original utterance is followed by two descriptions of Israel: an Israel that lives in a lush and verdant world, and a nation that is victorious against enemies. But Balaam's utterance is incomplete, which is why our liturgy expands it — and shifts the focus to the relationship of the individual with God.
I propose a reading that returns to the evocation of the community as a source of power, and then extends it, connecting the people with God and with our challenge. What if we read the verses from Numbers along with verses from the Book of Isaiah:
"How good are your tents, Jacob,/Your dwelling places, Israel? (24:5)/I, the Holy One, have called you to righteousness/And taken you by the hand,/I am the One who created you/And made you a covenant people, /a light among the nations/to open blind eyes/to bring the captive from confinement. (Isaiah 42: 6-7)./Enlarge the size of your tent,/extend the size of your dwelling (Isaiah 54:2)."
When we remember our relationship with the Holy One as a covenant that comes with obligation — to serve others, to open eyes that cannot see, and to bring captives out of their confinement — we see that we must expand our tent and enlarge our vision. An expanded tent in a gracious and open city reflects the utopian and achievable goal of moving beyond oppositional concepts of native/stranger, friend/foe, chosen/rejected, male/female.
Can we move beyond narrow, divisive definitions and descriptions that are no longer useful? Can we reclaim our sacred task and transform our communities by welcoming those who come into our houses of worship with words that describe what our community can be? When our dwelling places become sanctuaries for all seekers of peace and justice, when our homes welcome all who no longer objectify the other, then we can truthfully declare, "Mah tovu," how good, how fair are our tents.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.
This parshah is adapted from the rabbi's essay in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, ed. by Eskenazi and Weiss, 2008.