Torah portion: Be prepared, Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
July 1, 2015

I remember years ago being with Michael Meade, one of the greatest storytellers in North America, when he shared the Irish folk belief that before a raconteur can truly tell a story to a group, he must prepare for it by telling another, different tale. Judaism has always recognized this basic truth — that preparation results in a fuller experience — and this value can be seen clearly in this week’s portion, Balak.

This is the story of curses turning into blessings, and of the famous talking donkey. Balaam is a non-Jewish prophet who is commanded by the Moab king Balak to curse the Jews. On his way to go curse them, Balaam’s donkey speaks to him. And as if this was not challenging enough, when the prophet tries to speak the curse at the Hebrews, it turns into the blessing of Ma Tovu that we recite at the beginning of each morning’s service: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Pirkei Avot (5:6) teaches us that God created this talking donkey on the Friday afternoon of the first week of Creation. In preparation for what Balaam would need centuries later, God created this miraculous creature in that very first week. At the very start of Creation, God set the stage for what would happen. 

Because we are taught to emulate God, it is a reminder that we need to start our day with the right kavanah, the right intention. Like a great Irish storyteller, we must precede our story with another story; prepare in order to prepare; intend to have an intention.

A few years ago, I heard my friend and colleague Rabbi Larry Goldmark teach this in a different way to camp teenagers. He told them that Modeh Ani, the traditional prayer thanking God for returning our soul that is said as we first open our eyes, sets the tone for our entire day. If we begin it with gratitude, then the entire day — and our entire life — will be more full and joyous. Like God setting the stage for Balaam’s donkey during that first week of Creation, when we prepare ourselves to be prepared, our days are more complete.

On July 5 , we again have the opportunity for preparation. It is the minor fast holiday of the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating two of the saddest moments in Jewish history: when the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments was destroyed and when the walls of Jerusalem were broken, leading to the destruction of the Second Temple. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai to see the golden calf, we broke God’s heart; hundreds of years later, God broke our hearts on the same day at the walls of Jerusalem. The date begins a three-week period of mourning culminating on
Tisha b’Av. 

This three-week span is a preparation of a different kind, too, for it prepares us for the ultimate forgiveness that we receive on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is not only a day of personal forgiveness from God, it is also the day Moses came down from Sinai with the second set of tablets, the ultimate symbol of Divine forgiveness for our sin of the golden calf. Our calendar and holidays are a series of reminders to prepare and set our intentions. Although we are months away, our holidays encourage us now to start getting ready for the big days of prayer that we experience in the fall.

As we study this week’s Torah portion, we need to remember to constantly be preparing and resetting our personal intentions. Each day as we say our morning blessings, it is imperative to recall this story of Balaam. We need to be aware of the thin line between a blessing and a curse, and how our intentions and preparations can make all the difference.

May we always be prepared fully to give and receive blessings, and may our intentions bring about wholeness, peace, forgiveness and joy. Then our tents will truly be blessed, and our dwelling places filled with peace. 

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village (nersimcha.org) and author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com

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