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Parashat Balak

Parashat Balak: The Talking She-Donkey; Ma Tovu;

SHIR KI, Our Adult Choir, Begins Again, and The Choir Needs You!

This week’s Torah portion is one of only two Sidrot/portions out of the over fifty in the complete Torah that is named for a non-Jew! The Torah portion of Balak teaches us a strange story. Balak is king of the Moabites, and the Israelites must march through Moab on the way to the Promised Land. The story of the talking she-donkey and her master Balaam, the seer and false prophet who is an expert at invoking curses. Yet when he is commanded to curse the Israelites, he can only offer blessings to them. The last “blessing” spoken by the non-Jewish prophet Balaam has become part of our Shabbat and Festival Services to this day!

The Israelites draw closer to the Promised Land, and they must wage battle with tribes along the way. They have just defeated the Emorites and the Bashanites, two neighboring tribes of the powerful Moabites. Balak, King of Moab, is afraid that he and his people are next. He sends messengers to the land of Midian in search of Balaam, a famous seer and fortune teller, in order for him to curse the Israelites. In this week’s Sidrah, Balaam initially refuses Balak’s riches, but after repeated offers, he accepts, provided that he will only say the words that the Jewish G-d teaches him. Balaam leaves together with Balak’s emissaries. His she-donkey suddenly refuses to move, and Balaam viciously beats her. Miraculously, the she-donkey begins to talk, reprimanding her master for beating her.

When the delegation arrives in Moab, Balaam and his she-donkey shower the Israelites with praises. Despite Balak’s anger, this scenario repeats in three different locations. In the last location, Balaam pronounces words that all of us know to this day: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel/Mah Tovu O-ha-lecha Yaacov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael!” (24:5).

Despite his infamous notoriety among the surrounding tribes, Balaam can only recite the words praising Israel that he is taught by the omnipotent Jewish G-d.

Of all the personalities in the entire Torah, the only one whose name is found in an extra-Biblical source is the name of this false prophet Balaam! In 1967, archaeologists unearthed in Jordan fragments inscribed in red and black ink among the rubble of a building destroyed in an ancient earthquake. They reassembled the fragments to find a text that mentioned the seer Balaam who was well-known as a cursing prophet. The parallels to our Torah portion are so striking, that scholars have concluded that this is the very same person about whom we read in this week’s Sidrah.

It is disappointing that scholars have found no sources beyond the Torah mentioning any of our inspiring forefathers, foremothers, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua. Yet this strange and difficult personality, Balaam, known as an enemy of the Jews, has his identity corroborated by an archaeological source found in Jordan only fifty-five years ago!

The medieval compilers of our Siddur/Prayerbook and Machazor/High Holiday Prayerbook took the third prophecy of Balaam and placed it at the beginning of every major service and expanded the text into the meaningful prayer that we all know! We recite the complete Ma Tovu prayer on two occasions: as an assembled congregation, we sing this text with great joy and exultation at the beginning of our Shabbat and Festival evening services. As individuals, we are taught to recite this text whenever we enter a Synagogue structure for the first time after a long period away. It would certainly be both meaningful and appropriate for each of us to recite Ma Tovu as we enter our inspiring KI sanctuary after the Covid induced interruption of our community worship!

At the forthcoming High Holy Day season, once again our superb volunteer adult choir, SHIR KI, will begin Rosh Hashanah evening services by singing the Louis Lewandowski setting of Ma Tovu, together with our beloved Cantor Levy and virtuoso organist Andrew Senn. I remain so honored to conduct this wonderful choir! This majestic and magnificent setting was written by Louis Lewandowki, chief composer of the Berlin Jewish community in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Our singers love to sing this composition because of its spirit, its harmony, and its realization of the joy found in the Hebrew text. 

The music of Shir KI will help our entire congregation express our welcome to Rabbi Benjamin David as he leads our High Holy Day services for the very first time!

We want and need new KI members and friends to sing with us! Participation in Shir KI is a multifaceted experience. Our singers learn their music. They become wonderful friends. They express their Jewish collective identities in such a meaningful and profound way. They participate in several musical services, and present concerts in the greater Philadelphia community and beyond!

If you sang in your high school or university choir, now is the time to re-awaken the joy you felt when you sang together in harmony. Prior experience and musical literacy are wonderful qualities, but all you need is the ability to carry a tune and the joy of singing the music of our people.

This fall, we shall be learning the Jazz Shabbat Evening Service written by Jose Bowen, well known American composer and university educator. In the spring, we shall return to Verizon Hall for Sing Hallelujah 3, a magnificent celebration of Israel 75, together with several other Jewish choirs from throughout the Delaware Valley.

Our first rehearsal for this year is Tuesday evening, August 23, 7 pm, in the KI chapel. We look forward to greeting you. If you have any questions, please contact Cantor Levy or me directly.

My beloved wife, Ellen, and our children, Avrum, Rabbi Howard and Naomi, and Alana, join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorach.