Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Balak

Biblical teachers point to the Bible’s poetry as being symbolic of its artistry. At the same time, these same teachers argue that nothing happens in the text by accident: everything has a meaning. When it comes to texts of “poetic symmetry,” one stands at the crossroads. It is certainly possible that the value of the symmetric texts is pure art, but I never knew a poet who wrote only for the sake of creating art. Poetry speaks to the soul. It causes pathos and celebration in the heart of the reader who vicariously experiences the poet’s soul’s response to life. Passing off texts as being nicely “poetic” does little to help us internalize anything of lasting value. There has to be something more, and my tradition’s bent on exegesis demands the more profound look.

This week’s Torah portion includes a text that we recite every morning at the beginning of worship. “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya-akov; mishkenotecha Yisrael – How good are your tents (ohel) of Jacob; your sanctuary (mishkan) of Israel.” Of course, Jacob is Israel; his name gets changed after wrestling with God. Well, it sort of changes. We still call him Jacob but also call him Israel. Indeed, the text refers to his offspring as “B’nai Yisrael – children of Israel.” Especially given the beautiful melodies written to illuminate this text, it is beautiful poetry.

That said, I see a difference between the tents of Jacob and the sanctuary of Israel – even in the wilderness story. “Tents” speak to our dwellings; the places where life happens. A “sanctuary” is a place of worship and holiness. Yes, I absolutely believe that the two are inter-related, but they speak to different aspects of our lives. Of note, both structures, as they appear in this text, are temporary. As Israel moves through the wilderness, they set up and take down both the tents and sanctuary as they journey.

Our homes are both our tent and our sanctuary. We participate in all the mundane aspects of living within our home structure (building, tent, encampment, or other). Life happens there. At the same time, life is not mundane, and every interaction with someone else should elevate our spirit to some higher plane of appreciation. Paying bills is mundane. Securing the services for which one is paying adds to the well-being of one’s family. Eating is ordinary. Appreciating that, having eaten, one is better equipped to face the challenges and celebrations each day brings as a blessing.

We cannot ignore the part about doing what one needs to do to live as securely as possible. If, however, we see our life’s work only as a means to a more secure end, we have failed in faith. In 1923 (the same year Martin Buber wrote “I and Thou”), German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto, wrote “The Idea of the Holy.” He argued that one finds “holiness” in the daily experiences of living if one lives in a state of awe. As Buber wrote about the sacred relationships we share with God and with each other, Otto argued that one could not know a relationship is sacred until one experiences awe and blessing in the company of one’s neighbor or with God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

He presumed, however, that one should live in the sense of wonder. “Wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of all knowledge.” Not knowing can give rise to skeptic fear, complete disinterest, or a search for meaning and understanding. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“How good are your tents (ohel) of Jacob; your sanctuary (mishkan) of Israel.” We pray for lives of freedom and security; lives where our needs and wants get met. A t the same time, we need to utter the same prayer for everyone else (whether we like them or not), for if we see these wants and needs as being sacred, then they are holy for everyone, not just us. “Justice is never just us.” Shabbat Shalom.