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Parashat Balak- “Ma Tobu Ohalecha Yaakob” – Blessing or Curse?

Among the blessings proclaimed by Bilam in Parashat Balak is one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah – “Ma Tobu Ohalecha Yaakob, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – “How good are your tents, Yaakob, and your residences, Yisrael!” (24:5). This blessing is so significant that it is customary in our community to sing this verse as we accompany a bride and groom to the Hupa. Ironically, a blessing uttered by Bilam, a vicious foe of Am Yisrael, became the words sung at the most significant and auspicious moments of Jewish life.

The Gemara teaches that nearly all of Bilam’s blessings were fulfilled also in the reverse. The blessings themselves materialized, but in addition, there were occasions when the converse of every blessing was realized, when we suffered calamities that were the direct opposites of the blessings conferred upon us by Bilam. The one exception, the Gemara says, is this verse - “Ma Tobu Ohalecha Yaakob, Mishkenotecha Yisrael.” As opposed to all of Bilam’s other blessings, this one never reverted into a curse.

The Ketab Sofer (Rabbi Abraham Shemuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg, 1815-1871) suggested a fascinating, though sobering, explanation of the Gemara’s comment. He explained that this blessing was never turned into a curse for the simple reason that it did not have to – it is already, in a certain sense, a curse!

The Sages interpreted this Beracha as referring to our religious institutions, mainly our synagogues. While synagogues are certainly a great blessing, Bilam speaks here of an overabundance of synagogues, the scattering and distillation of Jewish communities into countless little “subcommunities.” The Ketab Sofer lamented the situation he witnessed in his city, where there were dozens of small little synagogues, rather than one or several large, centralized congregations. He perceptively noted that the plethora of synagogues resulted from infighting and quibbling, from the townspeople’s inability to get along with one another. First a group breaks off from the major synagogue because they disapprove of the Hazan, and they establish a new congregation with their own Hazan. Then a group of people decide that they do not like the new congregation’s Rabbi, so they start their own synagogue. Then people disagree over the Minyan schedule, the protocols, the décor, or whatever else, and before they realize it, one synagogue has divided and subdivided itself into dozens of small congregations.

In this sense, Bilam’s blessing is actually a curse. He wasn’t blessing us with spiritual success; he was wishing us disunity and conflicts that would result in a plethora of “dwelling places” and “residences,” in many different institutions that resent and look disdainfully upon one another.

Although our community can legitimately take pride in our unity and cooperation, there is plenty of room for improvement in this regard. We must work together as one community – notwithstanding the many differences that exist among its different segments – rather than forming different factions and parties. This will help ensure that “Ma Tobu Ohalecha Yaakob, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” remains a blessing and not a curse, that our religious institutions will be a source of Beracha that bring us all closer to Hashem, rather than a focal point of strife and contention.

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Parashat Noah: The Challenge of Spreading the Torah to Others
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Kal Nidrei
Partial Teshuva
Elul - Opening our Ears and Hearts to God
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