Excerpt from What’s in It for Me? How Could God Be So Cruel to Moses?

Finding Ourselves In The Bible

Tomorrow Jewish congregations around the word will read the story of “Moses hitting the rock” (Numbers 20). It is a controversial story with a vital lesson for all of us.

After nearly forty years of leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness, Moses is near the end of his rope. He snaps when the Israelites complain yet again that they have no water. God tells Moses to address a certain rock, and water will come forth. Instead of addressing the rock, Moses, still in mourning over the death of his sister, Miriam, loses his temper and shouts, “Listen you rebels. Shall we indeed bring forth water from this rock (Numbers 20:10)?” And then he bangs his staff three times against the rock as water comes gushing forth.

God is furious! Moses has made it appear that he – not the Almighty had caused the rock to issue water. However…

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One of Israel’s Greatest Triumphs

Today, the very upscale Mamilla mall that connects King David Street in Jerusalem to the entrance to the Jaffa Gate of the Old city is one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the world.  When I first came to study in Jerusalem in 1970, though, it was a depressed industrial area with a slum-like look.  How Israel has changed!

When I was last in Israel, at the entrance to the mall was a bronze sculpture of a man playing his violin on a street corner or a promenade.   Some of his strings are broken, but he perseveres.  His violin case is open before him, and it holds the spare change that passers-by have tossed into it.  It is how the man supports himself and his family.

If the $16,000 asking price had not been way beyond my budget, I would have purchased that sculpture for to me it is a magnificent symbol of one of Israel’s greatest triumphs. Between 1990 and 2000 Israel absorbed more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  To give perspective on what that means it was a feat akin to the United States absorbing the entire population of France!

As you can imagine, it was not easy.  There were logjams in housing, job training, language training and many other necessities of starting a new life in a new country.  Doctors in the FSU worked as orderlies; PhD. engineers worked as janitors; and symphony orchestra level musicians stood or sat on street corners and played with their instrument cases open, hoping for a few shekels from those who passed by.

Whenever I visited Israel during those ten years, the sculpture that caught my eye at the entrance to the Mamilla Mall was an all too familiar and all too sad real life scene.  I still see the faces of these great musicians, and I still feel the sadness of their sacrifice.  Back home in the Former Soviet Union they held esteemed chairs in prominent orchestras.  But they sacrificed all that as did so many in other walks of life. They sacrificed their present to come home to Israel in order to give their children and grandchildren the future and with that future the freedom and opportunities, which the Jewish State would offer.

As we know, Israel triumphed and overcame those hard times!  Because Israel successfully absorbed so many highly educated Soviet immigrants, her economy has boomed, and it has become one of the leading high tech nations in the world!  Indeed Israel now has one of the strongest economies on the planet.  So many people from visionary leaders to dedicated factory workers have shaped the Israel of which we are justly proud.

For me, the symbol of that absorption triumph and is the sculpture of an elderly man playing on with broken strings with an open violin case before him.

Trend toward Older Mother’s Is 1000’s of Years Old

The fifth of the seven traditional blessings recited at a Jewish wedding proclaims: “May the (Akarah) barren woman rejoice with happiness in the company of her children.” The blessing is an acknowledgement and an affirmation of the recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible of the woman beyond normal child bearing age who has children. While the term Akarah means “barren woman,” it is used exclusively – and in no fewer than seven cases – in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a woman who has children well beyond the normal child bearing age. The first of these is Sarah, Abraham’s wife and co partner in the sacred Covenant upon which all of Jewish religious thought bases itself. In that Covenant God promises Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: protection, children, permanence as a people and the land of Israel. But those promises are conditional. To merit them we (as God said directly to Abraham) must: “Be a blessing in our lives (Gn 12:2), “Walk in God’s ways and be worthy (Gn 17:1) and fill the world with Tzedakah, “righteousness” and Mishpat,“justice.” (Gn 18: 19) Sarah, of course, feels completely left out because she has no children. In despair, Abraham cries out to God: “What reward can you give me seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gn 15:2). Desperately Sarah invites Abraham to use humanity’s first known fertility procedure–having a child with a surrogate-–so that she can be a mother. She invites Abraham to cohabit with her handmaiden, Hagar who bears Ishmael. Eventually-–at the age of 90-–Sarah herself gives birth to Isaac. Isaac in turn marries Rebecca who is an Akarah for 20 years until she conceives and bears twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries four women, but really only loves one, Rachel. And Rachel is also an Akarah for many years before giving birth to Joseph. Three of Judaism’s first four matriarchs, then, did not become mothers until middle age, and in Sarah’s case, well beyond. Leah, who bore children shortly after her marriage, is the only exception. Much later, Samuel, arguably the second most significant figure (behind Moses) in the Hebrew Bible is born to Hannah who is also an Akarah. The (unnamed) mother of Samson, the mighty warrior who delivers Israel from the Philistines is also an Akarah. Finally, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha each invoke God’s help to intervened and help two different women (both identified by the term Akarah) to give birth. Hannah and Samson’s mother share a vital common trait. They are steadfast, understanding and faithful, while the men around them (their respective husbands and Eli the High Priest) are clueless to the meanings of their divine interactions. What modern lessons are we to glean from these disparate but related biblical accounts? The fact that a disproportionate number of the Bible’s great figures are the offspring of an Akarah must be seen as a compliment to women who give birth during middle age or beyond. The many biblical Akarot (plural of Akarah) who give birth is testify to the correlation between desire to have a child and the level of nurture and love that child will receive. We all are all too aware of the many children born almost at random to young women who have neither the emotional maturity or the financial wherewithal, or the family support to become mothers. Often their children are the results of careless “accidents”. The middle aged woman who gives birth, by contrast, almost always does so with great intentionality and desire to become a parent. More often than not the children of such women are eagerly desired, lovingly nurtured and raised in a home where finances are more than adequate to see to the child’s needs. The Bible in its praise of middle aged mothers goes even further. It sees their years of desire and longing as worthy of special reward. They not only give birth, but they “rejoice with happiness in the company of their children” who are destined to play an important role in the history of the Israelite people. (This essay appears as a chapter in Cyma Shapiro’s recently published book: The Zen of Midlife Mothering)

How Rabbi Fuchs Taught Me to Respect the Goat by Anna Albano (Guest Blogger)

(Anna Albano, well-known editor, translator, and blogger in Italy who writes under the name Faccio Testo has given me a very precious gift! Not only did she see the need and enthusiastically agree to translate What’s In it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives into Italian, she also wrote the beautiful essay below. I hope she will include it in the Italian edition of the volume. I reprint it here with Anna’s permission. She has my deep gratitude!)


“What about those who don’t believe in such a God, or any God at all?

Can Jewish learning and practice be meaningful and beneficial to them?

Indeed, it can—without a doubt.”

I think this sentence contains the profound meaning and right use of the book you are about to read, whether you are a Jew or not. Rabbi Fuchs will take you to an extraordinary journey from Creation to Mount Sinai with extraordinary energy. “Extraordinary” means “out of the common order.” In that common order Eve would be the villain in the Eden story. Rabbi Fuchs beautifully revolutionizes this point of view (he places it “out of the common order”): Eve, he writes, “was willing to risk the uncertainty for the possibility of a life filled with meaningful achievement, satisfying relationships, and the ability to bring new life into the world. She was eager to abandon life as it was in Eden … We should see Eve as a truly heroic figure whose bold action inspired God to create a new society … ”

In this sometimes whirling tour you will always find a focal point: we are here to make the world a better place, whether we believe in God or not. Just like God, we have the power to think, to analyze, to decide through our free will. Rabbi Fuchs succeeds in finding a meaning for our presence on this earth also (if not especially) for non-believing people. The smart idea is contained in a short Hebrew word, “k’eeloo,” meaning “as if”. Taking the “k’eeloo” way means behaving as if we were under God’s eye. It means to take action to bring justice and compassion in the world we live, it means complying to mitzvot even if we don’t call them such. It means to respect the people and the house we have been given by God, of which we are the tenants and not the owners.

What has a goat to do with all the above? In the story narrated by Rabbi Fuchs a goat had horns so long that he could touch the stars. Then a man showed up desiring to use this starry quality for his personal purpose and took a little piece of the goat’s horn. Then other men arrived with the same intent. In short no horn was left.

We must respect the goat. Our material needs should always be put under scrutiny and subjected to higher spiritual necessities.

This book can be our faithful beautiful goat. Read and re-read it, make it your companion. I have the privilege to be Rabbi Fuchs’s Italian translator, and the privilege to have had him as my first Rabbi. The title of this book, What’s in It for Me? suggests there is something for anyone. The moment I finished reading I knew what it is: an on-going refreshment of soul, an on-going Shabbat for everybody.


Anna Albano, Milan, Italy,


What Happens After I Die?

Of the 150 chapters that comprise our people’s first and greatest prayer book, the biblical book of Psalms, only one of those chapters is attributed to the greatest Jew of all—Moses. That is Psalm 90, which contains humanity’s fervent appeal to God: “Establish for us the work of our hands!”

Moses’s appeal is not just for temporal prosperity, as some might interpret it. It is much grander than that. He is saying, “Let me know that my life has meaning beyond the days I have spent on earth. Let me be sure, O God, that the years of my earthly journey were not in vain. Let me know that in some way I live on.”

We express that same hope every time we visit a cemetery and every time we place a monument marker at the grave of a loved one.

One of the questions people ask me most frequently is, “Rabbi, what really happens to me after I die? Do we Jews believe in life after death? Do we believe in heaven or hell?”

The simple answer to the question is, “Yes! We do!” Rabbinic literature speaks of olam ha-ba, “the world to come,” as a place where the righteous receive reward and the wicked are appropriately punished.

“Why then,” the questioner retorts, “do we hear so little of this in Jewish life while it is at the center of every Christian service or funeral that I attend?”

The answer points to a significant and honest difference between Christianity and Judaism as they developed. Our daughter religion was very much centered on the afterlife. Achieving salvation after death was the primary goal of living as classical Christianity understood it. If one believed in the saving power of the life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Jesus as the Christ (which is simply a Greek word for “Messiah”), then one’s eternal salvation and reward were assured.

For Jews, questions of afterlife have always been much less central. Our primary focus has always been on this life. Our primary goal in living is not to attain salvation in the world beyond, but to make the world in which we live as good a place as we possibly can.

In recent decades, we Jews—Reform Jews in particular—have so submerged mention of the afterlife that many Jews frame their question to me as an assumption. They say, “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, Rabbi?”

Again, I would assert, “Yes, we do!” For Jews, attaining the reward in olam ha-ba (“the world to come”) does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we act. It does not matter what we believe or do not believe about God. It is a matter of how we live our lives.

We are also very fuzzy on the details. Our focus has primarily been “Live your life here on earth as well as you can. And the afterlife, whatever it will be, will take care of itself.”

Still, our hearts yearn for a more specific answer to the question “What happens after I die?” I shall share mine with you. I divide my response into two parts: what I hope and what I know.

I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive, in some way, rewards from God in a realm beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.

Speaking personally, my father died at age fifty-seven; and my mother, who never remarried, died at age eighty-eight. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again, enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.

I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong, and vigorous—not weak and frail as they each were before they died. I hope and pray also that, in some indescribable way, they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.

I cannot of course prove that any of this is true. Yet there is warrant for these hopes in the annals of Jewish tradition. There are enough wonderful stories attesting to an eternal reward for goodness in the world beyond to allow me to cling tenaciously to my hope and belief.

Beyond what I merely hope, though, there is an aspect of afterlife of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.

At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel The Rabbi, the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind, thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches, “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise know they are loved, and they rejoice.” As I said, I hope but certainly cannot prove that it is true. But I can reformulate that legend into a statement that is unimpeachable: When I think of my dear ones, I know that I have been loved, and I rejoice. I rejoice in and try to live up to the life lessons they taught me. I rejoice in the memories of happy times I shared with them. I rejoice in the knowledge that I am a better person because of them.

Not long ago, I decided to dedicate two seats in the rear of our sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in memory of my parents. I chose those seats because they mark the exact spot in my boyhood synagogue where my parents’ reserved High Holy Day seats were located in the sanctuary of Temple Sharey Tefilo in East Orange, NJ, where I grew up.

Every time I look at them, it is easy to imagine them sitting there. During silent prayers and when the cantor sings, my heart overflows with wonderfully inspiring memories.

On Yom Kippur and  on the last day of our Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot festivals, we say Yizkor prayers for the same purpose: to draw inspiration from the wonderful memories that fill our hearts and minds when we think of those whom we have loved. We long for them, and we want to be worthy of them. The acute presence of their absence reminds us that life is finite and calls to us to make each day count in living up to their ideals and doing what we can to make the world a better place.

I believe we can—if we listen—hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred covenant of our faith: Be a blessing! Study and follow God’s instruction! Practice and teach those you love to practice righteousness and justice!

And then when we turn their words into our actions, we know—we absolutely know—that our loved ones are immortal and that they live on in a very real and special way.

Excerpt from What’s in It for Me? How Could God Be So Cruel to Moses?

Tomorrow Jewish congregations around the word will read the story of “Moses hitting the rock” (Numbers 20). It is a controversial story with a vital lesson for all of us.

After nearly forty years of leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness, Moses is near the end of his rope. He snaps when the Israelites complain yet again that they have no water. God tells Moses to address a certain rock, and water will come forth. Instead of addressing the rock, Moses, still in mourning over the death of his sister, Miriam, loses his temper and shouts, “Listen you rebels. Shall we indeed bring forth water from this rock (Numbers 20:10)?” And then he bangs his staff three times against the rock as water comes gushing forth.

God is furious! Moses has made it appear that he – not the Almighty had caused the rock to issue water. However, furious or not, God imposes a penalty that seems unduly harsh. “Because you did not show enough faith in me to affirm my holiness in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you shall not lead the community into the land I am giving them (Numbers 20:12).” Wow! After all Moses had done, God sentences him to die in the wilderness without ever entering the Promised Land! How could God be so cruel? It is like giving someone a life sentence for a relatively minor violation. Even if we argue that, the offense was indeed serious (and I would agree) the punishment seems too harsh.

Ultimately, ranting against God’s excess misses the point. There is a vital lesson in this story for all of us. Moses’ time had passed. He was not the leader he once was. He was too old tolead the military campaign necessary for the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land.

Such a campaign required a young, vigorous leader whose voice the people would obey without hesitation. Joshua was that man, and if Moses were still around when Joshua said, “Charge!” there would be those who would look to Moses to see if “Charge!” was, in fact, the right thing to do.

Each of us has limited opportunities to lead and to influence. When that time passes, even if we are Moses, we have to step aside and pass the reigns of leadership on to another. The question of whether God’s punishment was too harsh is irrelevant. Moses was past his prime as all of us will be one day. Therefore, we should make the most of the opportunities afforded us. Too many people lament what they should have done when they had the chance. Time is finite, and so like Moses, we must do what we can, when we can. Unlike Moses, though, we must be ready to relinquish the reigns when that time is over.


How I Stayed Married Forty-three Years

When Susan Shuman, of SusanWritesPrecise who has been an enormous help with my book, suggested I post an essay on Secrets of a Happy Marriage, I thought, “No way, I don’t pretend to know any secrets.” As I thought about her idea, though, the more it appealed because I believe that many of the ideas in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives are directly responsible for the durability of my marriage to Vickie.

It begins with the ideas underlying Genesis’ creation story that however it happened scientifically, God is behind creation, and life has meaning and purpose. One of my favorite midrashim, that I quote frequently at weddings, tells of a Roman matron who asked Rabbi Jose bar Chalafta, “This God of yours who you say created the world with purpose and meaning … what has your God been doing since then?”

Without batting an eye, the rabbi answered, “Since creation, God has been busy arranging marriages … ”  (Bereshit Rabbah 68:4). Yes, I believe that in ways beyond our understanding God has a role in bringing couples together. But even if you find the notion as preposterous as the Roman Matron did at first than (as I point out in the chapter,”What if I Don’t Believe in God) act k‘eeloo, “as if” God picked your mate for you. If you do, you will treat him or her differently than if you think of your significant other as someone you just met by chance!

Of course I was very blessed! Vickie’s beauty bowled me over the first time I saw her. She is bright, fun, and we have spent wonderful times together. She is also as good a mother and grandmother as our planet has ever seen. It was not hard for me to want to spend my life with her. It still is a commitment I would eagerly make.

Still, as I say frequently, “We have all been expelled from the Garden of Eden.” Life is not perfect, I am not perfect, Vickie is not perfect, you are not perfect, and neither is your partner. You will have trials, tribulations and disagreements. Expect them and regard them as a necessary part of life! Combine that realistic perspective with a firm commitment to the sanctity of your marriage and your odds of making it to forty years and beyond increase.

Take the relationship between Moses and God as a metaphor for your marriage. There were times when God was ready to give up on the people of Israel, but Moses encouraged the Almighty to stick with them. There were also times when Moses felt he could no longer go on, and in those times God strengthened him. Be there for each other. Be ready to encourage and pick your partner up in his or her moments of weakness.

Consider your marriage your most important priority in your life. Without question I view my forty-three-year marriage to Vickie as my most important accomplishment.

Finally, never think you have it made. Try to win your partner’s love every day. In congratulating me on our anniversary, Paulette German wrote, “To go the distance is a  beautiful accomplishment!” Indeed it is, but we haven’t “gone the distance” yet. Hopefully there is still a long way to go, but

–if we continue to act, k’eeloo “as if” God brought us together,

–if we realize that we both have imperfections and that life will not always be perfect,

–if we look to pick each other up in our moments of weakness,

–and if we continue to consider our marriage our most important priority, then I would say that the prospects that our marriage will indeed “go the distance” are very good indeed.




Rabbi Renee Edelman and I share our thoughts on: Balaam, One of the Bible’s Most Puzzling Character’s

The Wisdom of Balaam and How the Light Can Be Found All Around Us

by Rabbi Renee Edelman

Over the years of my life, I have lived with and interacted with many different types of animals, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, cows and my favorite the pot belly pig. Each animal had their own way of communicating and entering into relationship with their owners or handlers. Signs and words caused the animals to take action while they communicated the desire for play through thrown balls or jumping around the knees. I once had an extremely unusual experience with a cat. I have never been a cat person but now own several. After university, I moved to a road which lead directly to Harvard Street in Brookline, Ma. and the best bagels in the world, Kupels. I made this trip daily by myself for the first three days. On the fourth, a black cat with bright green eyes made the jump out of a third floor window to land at my feet. The cat quickly climbed up my arm and landed on my shoulder as I continued to walk. Truthfully I was terrified and determined that if I stopped walking the cat would attack me. After months, I was used to the company and even my parents who witnessed this event called the cat my medium. I tried to distance myself from this animal before I began truly thinking about why this cat had chosen me as its human and if I was a witch.

Many read Parashat Balak, our portion for this week as bizarre. In fact, Rabbi Larry Kushner calls it: “a fundamentalist’s nightmare…the lollapalooza grand­dad­dy of all the off-the-wall Bible stories. It’s so preposterous it makes splitting the Red Sea look like child’s play—one of the oddest in the entire Torah.” How could it not be? With a sorcerer, a talking donkey, and curses-turned-blessings galore, the story sounds like a cross between Harry Potter and Tim Burton. The parashah focuses on two main characters: Balak, a Moabite king set on cursing Israel, and Balaam, the sorcerer hired to carry out the evil deed. Balak generously bribes Balaam to get the job done, but he grows more and more frustrated because the sorcerer never seems to complete the task. In fact, Balaam manages quite the opposite, uttering the blessing with which we begin morning worship: Mah tovu ohalechah Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael , “How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). He comes to this benediction after a bizarre encounter with a talking donkey, which makes him aware of God’s presence and mouth against the sorcerer’s will (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b).

We cannot blame the Sages for their skepticism when the Torah itself remains unconvinced that Balaam’s intentions are sincere. We learn that: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai . . . because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.—But Adonai your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, Adonai your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for Adonai your God loves you” (Deuteronomy 23:4–6). And this comes after the Israelites condemn Balaam to death without explanation (Numbers 31:8).

As the monotheism struggled to take flight, its proponents offered zero tolerance for polytheistic practices like sorcery and divination. The monotheism of the ancient Hebrews promoted the view of a single, all-powerful God. The will of this one God could not be influenced by human magic. The Israelites vilified anyone engaging in or associated with these so-called pagan practices.

Obviously, the Jewish tradition is very protective of Jews. After all, Balak and Balaam conspire to curse and undermine the Israelites in order to drive them away. Our ancestors felt a need to call out these adversaries and hold them accountable. Tocheichah , or “rebuke,” is not only a natural response, but is also a necessary one. Proverbs teach, “They that rebuke find favor, and a good blessing falls upon them” (24:25). For the Israelites, the tocheichah of Balaam and Balak and their descendants serves as medicine designed to prevent the ills of constant threats from conspirators and their kin.

The challenge with tocheichah , though, is to guard against becoming overzealous. In our fervor, we can become blind to the potential virtues present in the very person who remains the object of our rebuke. In other words, when we become self-righteous in critiquing those who have hurt us, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt when they try to exercise real change of heart. In so doing, we violate the important Jewish midah , “virtue,” of dan l’chaf z’chut, “giving others the benefit of the doubt.” Our ancient texts may also be guilty of this to some degree.

Is it possible that Balaam experiences a profound change of heart about the Israelites, which leads him to offer blessings instead of curses? While most rabbinic lore denies this possibility, some elements of our tradition do allow for it. Nehama Leibowitz notes that Balaam evolves from “a common sorcerer to a prophet ‘who hears the words of God.’” She admits that Balaam uses his sorcery at first “to accommodate the divine will to his interests.” She even attests to the notion that Balaam offers blessings against his will—twice. But the third time is a charm, and with it, Leibowitz feels Balaam “leaves all his schemes and wholeheartedly gives himself up to the divine prophetic urge” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Haommanim Press, 1981], p. 290).

The great rabbi Hillel teaches: “Judge not your fellow until you have been in that person’s place” ( Pirkei Avot 2:4). We all know that first impressions are not always correct and that often we are proven wrong. And we know that when we have a change of heart about someone, when we have performed acts of t’shuvah , we long for forgiveness. We hope others will believe that our personal growth is real. We crave the benefit of the doubt.

There is blessing in thoughtful rebuke, designed to protect our welfare and integrity as Jews, to hold ourselves and our enemies accountable for evil. There is also blessing in the fundamental Jewish hope that any person can change if he or she truly wants to grow. Such effort to change deserves our benefit of the doubt. Our role in life, then, is to choreograph the steps between these two poles. If we create balance between these two midot “virtues,” we can look forward to a life of greater harmony, a reality suggestive of a world redeemed, a life filled only with blessings, a reality where God’s presence is always palpable. And if we meet any talking animals along the way, may we have the presence of mind to pay attention. The message can come from anywhere.


By Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Before You Sing Mah Tovu Again, Please Read this!

It is a pleasure for me once again to offer a joint perspective with Rabbi Renee Edelman! This time we want to give you a month’s lead time before congregations around the world read the story of one of the Bible’s most puzzling characters, Balaam

Too many times to count, I have heard rabbis announce, “We begin our service with Mah Tovu!” And then the rabbi, Cantor, choir and congregation or some combination of those resources begin to sing: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!“ (Numbers 24:5)

As thinking Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!

When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.

As the children of Israel were on their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam-– try as he might–could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents …”

Rabbi Edelman correctly points out that Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah! He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses! (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; B. Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless to what he should have done when his donkey—an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity—perceived God’s will.

Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end, as Rabbi Edelman teaches us, he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.

When we understand its biblical context, the prayer teaches us a vital lesson: No outside force–-no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, no Hitler, no one–can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! We can destroy ourselves through apathy and assimilation! We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Jewish life in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.

No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! Now that we have that understanding, let us begin our service with Mah Tovu!