The famous liturgical lyric of the mah tovu is found in this week’s portion. Bilaam, a sort of free-lance priest is hired by Balak to curse the Israelites. In one of the more famous stories of the Torah, Bilaam’s donkey encounters a messenger of God, a crises ensues and as a result, Bilaam blesses the Israelites. (24:5). No doubt those of you who attend weekly Torah study will spend much time on the nuances of the story.
I want to look at a comment on this verse from the Torah commentary edited by Rabbi Plaut. He cites (page 1179) a comment on 24:5 that says “the physical image of Israel is the reflection of its spiritual being”. That is a great sentence. This is an especially great sentence for us. As we age, it is no secret that our bodies change. Our physical appearance may be altered in a variety of ways. The comment is reminding us that what shines through is the spiritual and how we act, believe, and carry ourselves is reflected in our outer appearance. It IS what is inside that counts. The tradition is reminding us that our spiritual life effects even how we look.
What is also fasncinating int his week’s discussions is that we have an actual blueprint for that spiritual life. We find it in the Haftrah portion assigned to Balak. The Prophet Micah speaks to the issue of how to live a spirtual life in Micah 6:8: “It has been told to you what is good and what God requires of you: only to do justice, act with kindness and walk humbly with God. ” Justice, love and humility are the values that can form the basis of a spiritual life. As we age, and reflect on the past and look with hope to our future, the tradition provides us with a formula that can provide this spiritual foundation of living. Think about what that can mean. What would a life focused on these values mean? How would living this life impact our own outward person? How would we be “seen”? Would a life based on justice, love and humility bring to us a sense of peace, focus and vision? Would living such a life allow us to turn curses into blessings?
I invite you take a few moments to unpack these words this Shabbat and see how they can be incorportaed into our own life. It may be liberating. It may allow us to recast our own priorities so that we can say to our own self and soul mah tovu..how good, how lovely is my own soul and self.
Rabbi Richard F Address