The Torah portion of Balak teaches us a strange story. All the miraculous events that we have learned about in the Torah thus far can be comprehended in their historical context, but the story of the talking she-donkey and her master Balaam who, upon command to curse the Israelites, can only offer blessings to them, is almost bizarre. 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. The Israelites 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 non-Jewish seer and fortuneteller, in order to curse the Israelites. 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 him 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 goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel/Mah Tovu O-ha-lecha Yaacov, Mishk’notecha Yisrael!”(24:5).
Despite his great fame among the surrounding tribes, Balaam can only recite the words praising Israel that he is taught by the omnipotent Jewish G-d.
The compilers of our Siddur/Prayerbook and Machzor/High Holiday Prayerbook took this verse uttered by Balaam and placed it at the beginning of every major service. We recite the complete Ma Tovu prayer on two occasions: as an assembled congregation, we sing this text with great joy and exultation. As individuals, we are told to recite this text whenever we enter a Synagogue structure for the first time after a long period away.
This has such powerful meaning for us today! After more than 16 months, Jews all over the world are returning to their beloved sanctuaries for public worship. Just last week, Rabbi Sussman and Cantor Levy, together with organist Andrew Senn, led KI congregants in joyous Shabbat evening prayer for a live congregation! All of us should recite the Ma Tovu prayer with a full heart of joy and thanksgiving as we gather together with our friends and fellow congregants for joyous and spontaneous out loud and in person prayer!
On a Tuesday evening in June, our fantastic Shir KI Adult Choir and professional quartet returned to the upper bimah at KI for our first rehearsal since March 2020. We sat socially distanced and masked with our music in hand, and we joined in magnificent singing of Mah Tovu, according to the music of Louis Lewandowski, chief composer of the Berlin Jewish community during the second half of the 19th century. (We shall be celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth during this coming season!) For the first time in so long, our singers responded to my downbeat, and sang together as if we had never been apart!
One month ago, I watched a Zoom presentation of the European Cantors Network, describing the Jewish choral programs of six different congregations, three in England, one in Germany, one in Johannesburg, South Africa, and one in Moscow. The conductors described the difficult year they had endured attempting to stay afloat during the pandemic. They talked of their concern about the future of their synagogue choral programs, threatened by apathy and declining involvement of their congregants. I typed in the Chat a small description of the KI choral program: Shir KI that I am so privileged to conduct, KI Professional Choir directed by Andrew Senn, Shir Joy Children’s Choir led by Liz Sussman, and our teenage ensemble led by Cantor Levy. Our entire musical program is supervised and guided by the visionary and tireless efforts of Cantor Amy Levy! I am sure that the several hundred attendees at this session were impressed by the depth and breadth of the KI Jewish Musical Experience.
Shir KI will resume weekly rehearsals on Tuesday evening, August 10th, 7:30 pm in the Main Sanctuary.
Please look for future information concerning the resumption of our Jewish musical life at KI. Soon we shall all be able to sing TOGETHER the words of Mah Tovu uttered by Balaam in this week’s Torah portion.
My beloved wife, Ellen, our children Avrum, Rabbi Howard and Naomi, our daughter Alana, and our grandchildren Micah Toby and Sophie Daniela, join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Kayitz Naim: summer of rest, relaxation, and renewal.