July 3, 2015
16 Tammuz 5775
One of the connections between the Torah reading and Haftorah reading this week in Parashat Balak are the Hebrew words, mah tovu. These words, which we recite upon entering a synagogue during the morning prayer service, originated from a non-Israelite sorcerer or prophet (depending on which commentary you follow), Balaam. Balak, a Moabite king, instructs Balaam to curse the Israelites. When he arrives to curse them, in a scene with his donkey, God prevents Balaam from cursing and instead he blesses the Israelites. Balaam asserts: "How fair (mah tovu) are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:2,5). In this instance he is praising the Israelites and complimenting.
In the Haftorah reading, Micah tells them: "He has told you, O mortal, what is good (mah tov), and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love kindness (hesed), and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). Rabbi Shai Held makes the point that the Haftorah defines mah tov as something to aspire yourself towards. You should strive for justice and kindness. Balaam uses the indicative form, declaring that the Israelites are already good, while Micah uses the imperative form signifying that there is still work to do towards becoming more good.
I think that both definitions are important to us. The love and acknowledgement of our goodness in Numbers reminds us to love ourselves and each other. We can seek out and recognize the goodness that exists within each one of us. Micah reminds us that we cannot get too comfortable with our goodness, that we should strive for justice and greater kindness in our world. We need both forms of mah tovu, because we have to love and recognize the goodness we see and constantly strive for more goodness, more justice, and more hesed, loving kindness. I believe it is this balance that enables us to continually grow.
As we enter Shabbat, I encourage you to think about how you are good and how you can work to bring more goodness into the world.
July 3, 2015