Friday, July 8, 2011

Praise from the Periphery: Parashat Balak

This week's portion is one of the most famous in the Torah. It is one that is filled with tales of fantasy and fancy -- a talking donkey, a non-Israelite prophet who blesses Israel as he attempts to curse it, and a rare moment of praise for the Israelites after years of rebuke from Moses and God. This portion is the source of one of the most prominent lines in our morning prayers, "mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkinotecha Israel." Balaam, the non-Israelite magician and steward of the evil king Balak, utters the words, "how great are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel," instead of the cursed words he was commanded to speak by his employer.

Menachem Ben-Yashar points out something unique and compelling about this blessing that I had never thought about previously. It is part of God's genius to have this rare blessing to come out of the mouth of a stranger. The generation that came out of the desert has been rebuked almost constantly, having every sin and shortcoming highlighted by Moses. The people need a glorious moment, something that gives them faith in the meaning of their journey and their purpose at a people. Not only do the Israelites need words of affirmation, it is superior for those words to come from the mouth of a stranger.

He writes the following on the importance of the source of these blessed words:

"In the generation of the wilderness, when Moses repeatedly reproves the people, it is fitting for praise of Israel to be voiced precisely by an outside figure, not one of Israel: “Let the mouth of another praise you, not yours, the lips of a stranger, not your own” (Prov. 27:2). A stranger, setting out with fundamentally hostile intent, is the one to sing in the name of the Lord praise of Israel in the wilderness. "

This point evoked for me one of the harmful phenomena of modern life. Often parents bestow praise on their children constantly for accomplishments that are not meritorious. Everything is a monumental achievement, and as such, children cannot accurately gauge whether or not they have truly accomplished something great. It is only from the mouths of outside sources not previously inclined toward these kids that can indicate for them whether or not their have exhibited the hard work and creativity worthy of praise. When Balaam, enemy and outsider, uttered this blessing, it actually meant something great.

Even if praise is justified, often we need to hear it from and outside source. We may become inured to those who are close to us and value their objectivity. I think what this portion can teach us in the importance of what is called in Hebrew hakarat hatov, recognizing and mentioning the good. When we see someone do good work or achieve something great, we should tell them, especially if we are not close to them. Our words can have greater meaning and give these individuals the strength and reinforcement to persevere and continue their journeys.

Shabbat Shalom from Maine!

Mazal Tov to Calev on his Bar Mitzvah this week at Beth Israel Congregation. You're going to do an awesome job.

See you all next week.