June 23, 2023
Parasha Chukkat & Balak
Please feel free to share with Cantor Zim or Rabbi Wasser your favorite tunes so that we can share more about their origins and musical interpretations!
This Shabbat we read a double portion called Chukkat-Balak.
The Torah portion of Chukkat describes an illogical purification ritual which takes place after contact with a dead body. That process involves the Kohen sprinkling the ashes of a pure red heifer (also deceased) upon those who have encountered a dead body (making them pure, but the Kohen now ritually impure). In that sense, to highlight the centrality of the red heifer in the story, I could potentially offer a musical rendition of “Old Macdonald Had a Farm”, but let’s choose instead to look at another famous line from the second text, ironically, also involving a farm animal!
Many of us are familiar with the liturgical words of Mah Tovu at the beginning of the prayer book. The text is often displayed at the entrances to Jewish houses of worship and their sanctuaries. The quote Mah Tovu appears in parashat Balak this Shabbat.
According to the story, Bilaam was a non-Hebrew prophet-for-hire who was enlisted by Balak, the king of the Moabites, to curse the Israelite people. After prolonged negotiations over the terms, an ill-fated donkey ride, and no fewer than three attempts to fulfill the task, Bilaam instead blesses the Israelites. From higher ground, he gazes down at the encamped Israelites spread below him far into the distance and wondrously announces, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, Thy dwellings, O Israel!
Of course, the text in a literal reading, reminds us of the beautification of our places of worship, dedicated as a symbol to the importance of serving Hashem. The Torah is also making a clear statement with this story. One of the most fundamental missions of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations. Mah Tovu reminds us that it may be even more vital to look outwards and to serve as an example to those around us. Like Balak and Bilaam, the outside world notices us and learns from our actions, our deeds and our actions.