As I was preparing my last E-Newsletter Shabbat Shalom Message, I thought about what I could derive from this week’s Torah portion that I could share with you, and I found exactly what I was looking for. So here it is. When my siblings and I were very young, we were almost always “on the same page,” sharing a common perspective. Yes, we squabbled a bit, but we were pretty tied to one another. I think many sisters and brothers, having like experiences as little children, would see themselves on similar journeys. Now, as adults with spouses and children of our own, perspectives, understandably, may differ. This is simply a reality, and not necessarily a cause for concern. A commentary by Cantor Ellen Dreskin so spoke to me on differences that we may have, and I would like to share it now with you.
In this week’s parasha, Balak, we read these familiar words, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). These words are sung at the beginning of a morning service, – the words of Balaam, a wicked sorcerer hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites as they pass through his kingdom on their way to Canaan.
But it just isn’t happening. Balaam opens his mouth and what comes out? Not a curse, but a blessing. One line from the mouth of a non-Israelite magic maker, and several thousand years later, we’re still singing it every morning.
Why? Perhaps as Cantor Dreskin explains, it is because these simple words emphasize the blessing of each individual’s unique role in our community, the blessing that is contained in every aspect of our own personalities, and our obligation to attempt to speak blessings and be a blessing at every moment of our lives.
As we take a closer look at this portion, the verse appears repetitive. Aren’t ‘tents’ and ‘dwellings’ pretty close in definition? And aren’t ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel’ the same person?
Maybe, and maybe not.
Tents, we know, are temporary shelters. Jacob, a name that comes from the Hebrew word for “follower” or “heel,” arrived in this world literally hanging onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. While his brother hunted game, domesticated Jacob, was content to stay home and cook the stew. He was definitely quite comfortable in a tent.
But that’s Jacob. Israel is something – or someone – else. Israel, the name that Jacob receives following an all-night wrestling match with some sort of angel, literally means “he will struggle with God.” Israel is not a follower, but a leader – and leadership most often involves challenge and, sometimes, struggle. Leadership happens in situations and times where we really dwell, in the homes with the people we love, at the workplace with the people we consider as friends and colleagues, places where there is really something at stake. Israel dwells in and thrives through challenging the big questions and, sometimes, injustices that may exist within our family, our community, or injustices of the greater world.
Some of us spend our days or lives as tenders of the home or workers behind the scenes, taking on a quieter role, but one that requires a specific strength. Some of us, at certain times, however, are more inclined to be wrestlers, dwelling in those places that require, perhaps, a more outward strength.
Every family, every community, and the entire world benefit from both the Jacobs and the Israels – the capacity for both is within each of us. Just think about the different roles our family members take on or our co-workers embody. Truly, it would not be productive if we were all “Israels,” wrestlers, or all “Jacobs” at the same time. We need to acknowledge that both are good. That realization is the blessing that Balaam bestowed upon us.
A number of years ago, I received a sweet gift – a T-shirt that read, It’s All Good. That was and continues to be my mantra during tumultuous times as well as those blessed, peaceful moments. It’s all good: each day, whether we step into the role of follower or leader, whether we are close to home or further away; whether our mind is tranquil or we are dwelling in a space of true wrestling, ready to take on a necessary challenge, it’s all good.
Each of us has days of “Jacob-ness,” as well as days of “Israel-ness.” Some people spend their lives entirely in one world or the other, and that should be ok. Let’s acknowledge the unique contributions of the day, gifts brought by each and every member of our family and community even when we have different opinions and react to circumstances in a variety of ways. No matter who we are, blessings can and must emerge from our lives as well as our lips – a message that we, as parents, hope to pass on to our children, and we as teachers pass on to our students, young and old. If the wicked sorcerer Balaam could do it, Mah tovu, then so can we. Just think of the sense of Shalom Bayit that would come as a beautiful consequence of such an acknowledgment. Wishing you and your families, a peaceful, loving Shabbat with a renewed openness to embracing our differences and the ones we love.