Irony of ironies! Jews enter a synagogue for a morning service and the first words they recite were originally uttered by a non-Israelite! It is a verse in the Torah portion of Balak, Numbers 24:5: “Mah tovu ohalekha yaakov; mishkenotekha yisrael — How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.”
Balaam was the non-Israelite prophet hired by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the people of Israel. However, Balaam resisted the requests of Balak to curse Israel and held fast to his conviction that he could “only repeat faithfully what [God] puts in my mouth” (Numbers 23:12). Balaam saw the Israelite encampment and, when the spirit of God came upon him, he uttered the words we put into our siddur and recite when entering a synagogue to start the morning blessings.
In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b), the rabbis said the tents of Jacob were houses of study and the dwelling places of Israel were synagogues. In like manner, our houses of study and our synagogues have been our portable cultural milieu as we have moved from land to land in the Diaspora.
Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), the poet laureate of cultural Zionism, penned what I consider to be the most soul-stirring poem that expresses the essence of how Torah study and prayer in the synagogue have sustained the Jewish people throughout the ages. Bialik wrote the poem, “Should You Wish to Know the Fount” in 1898, which is excerpted here:
“Should you wish to know the fount / From which your brothers [and sisters] drew / Their strength of soul, / Their comfort, courage, patience, trust, / And iron might to bear their hardships / And suffer without end or measure?
And should you wish to see the fortress / Wherein your fathers refuge sought, / And all their sacred treasures hid, / The refuge that has still preserved / Your nation’s soul intact and pure, / And when despised, and scorned, and scoffed, / Their faith they did not shame?
And should you wish to see and know / Their mother[s], faithful, loving, kind, / Who sheltered them and shielded them, / And lulled them on [their laps to sleep?
If you, my brother [and sister], know not, / Then enter now the House of God, / The House of study, old and gray, / Throughout the scorching summer days, / Throughout the gloomy winter nights, / At morning, noon or night, / And there you may still behold / A group of Jews from the exile / who bore the yoke of its burden, / forgetting their toil in a Talmud’s tattered page.
And then your heart shall guess the truth / That you have touched the sacred ground / Of a great people’s house of life, / And that your eyes do gaze upon / The treasure of a nation’s soul.”
Coincidentally, the date of Bialik’s death, July 4, 1934, often falls during the week when the Torah portion of Balak is read. How fitting it is on this Sabbath that we remember his poem extolling the sustaining power of our houses of study and worship.
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at [email protected] .