sunset manhattan
Back to Stories & Articles

Toward Shabbat: Hukkat-Balak

Two hundred and forty-four years ago this weekend, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence, freeing the 13 colonies from subordination under the British monarchy. Generations of Americans have marked this day with not only joy and celebration, but also with the renewed sense of opportunity for rebirth that accompanies another cycle around the sun. This year, as we prepare to commemorate July 4th amid some of the most extraordinarily profound challenges faced in our nation’s history, how might we channel this unprecedented moment into one of renewal and possibility?

In this week’s parashah (Parashat Hukkat-Balak, Numbers 19:1-25:9), Balaam, a messenger of the Moabites tasked with delivering a curse upon B’nai Yisrael, looks out from the peak of Peor over the vast, desolate wasteland, and surprises even himself by delivering not a curse upon the Israelites, but a blessing.

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

 “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel”
—Numbers 24:5

So impactful is this verse, our sages repurposed it into our liturgy. We sing these words upon entering the synagogue; children’s voices echo this text throughout schools and summer camps; indeed, this verse has taken on new meaning as the ohel and mishkan, the tent and the dwelling, have come to represent the places we study, gather, and pray—the nexus points for the work of building sacred community (BT Sanhedrin 105b).

And yet, these words of blessing bubbled up in Balaam while overlooking a vast and destitute expanse—primed for the cursing that was his task. How might we view such an expanse not as expansive emptiness, but as expansive possibility? Can we stand atop our own peaks, looking out at the confounding struggle of our days, and see, even then, opportunities for blessing?

In our morning liturgy, the line directly following this verse reads “V’ani berov hasdekha, avoh veitekha. Your great love inspires me to enter your house.” Thus, this blessing is transformed further into a call to action; the love of the Divine asks us to take the first steps to enter the house —the house in which we may do the work of building the world we dream of inhabiting—that we must commit to co-creating.

As we enter into this 4th of July Shabbat—facing challenges both shockingly new and systemically entrenched—we have the opportunity and responsibility to embrace that call to action; for the work of facing down such dark vastitudes, inspired by a belief in what may be possible, is a first step in the arduous journey toward blessing.