“Water shall flow from his wells and his seed shall be by abundant waters.” (Numbers 24:7)
The Torah contains 5,845 verses. Some are descriptive (On the third day there was thunder and lightning), some are formulaic (And God said to Moses…), some are inspirational (Be holy, because I, your God, am holy), and some are inscrutable (Take a red cow without blemish…). Then there are the verses, like those found in Parashat Balak, that are beautifully poetic.
Parashat Balak describes the inevitability of God’s truth. Balaam, king of Moab, gets nervous when the Israelites defeat his neighbors, the Amorites. So he hires Bilaam, the local wizard/prophet, to curse the Israelites. This backfires, and Bilaam blesses the Israelites with the words, ma tovu…“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) The midrash (both the technique of interpretation as well as the body of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible) comments on the seeming redundancy in the verse by explaining that “tents” refers to the temporary situations in life, and “dwelling places” the more permanent.
This verse is part of the daily prayer service, and is recited as you enter the makom tfila (prayer space). The rabbis knew that not everybody who comes to pray is in the mood to do so. So they prescribed these words as a reminder to both leave your baggage at the door, to be impressed with the transcendent quality of the Jewish space you have entered, and to claim it as your own. This mindset is as appropriate for entering the JCC as it is for the synagogue: surely, God is [also] in this place (Genesis 28:16). Our job is to notice!
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,