Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
This week’s Torah portion contains one of the more famous verses from the Torah, “How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel/ mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkanotekha Yisrael” The context for the verse is the unusual tale of Balaam. Balaam is a foreign prophet who is called to curse Israel by Balak, a king who fears Israel’s might. But every time Balaam comes to curse Israel, blessings come out. In his final curse/blessing, he looks out over Israel and says the famous line that has become a standard part of Jewish liturgy. The story is one of inversion. Curses are turned into blessings.
Because the Balaam story is one of such hope that blessings will fall on Israel, it is a distinct surprise to read Yehuda Amichai’s poem about this moment in the Torah which has become a prayer. While Balaam has curses becoming blessing, Amichai, Israel’s most renowned poet, goes the other way. Here is the short poem:
“How Beautiful are your tents, Jacob”
even now, when there are neither tents nor Jacob’s
tribes, I saw, how beautiful
Oh, may there come something of redemption
An old song, a white letter,
A face in the crowd, a door opening
For the eye, multicolored
Ice cream for the throat.
Oil for the guts, a warm
Memory for the breast
Then my mouth will open wide
In everlasting praise
Open like the belly of a
Wide-open calf hung on a hook
In a butcher’s shop of the Old City market
It’s of course a terrible and twisted image for the poem to end on. Glenda Abramson, a scholar of Amichai’s poetry, notes how the poem descends from the first stanza where he says how beautiful the land, even without the tents, to the last stanza where we are left with an image of a butchered animal. The poet is in effect reversing the Torah. In the Torah, we start out expecting curses and we get blessings. In Amichai, we start out expecting blessings and we end up with curses.
I think this poem has particular relevance for this moment in our public life. As a I reflect on a week in our country of seeing our leaders take children from their families for the “crime” of trying to find a better life, and where we hear a constant stream of xenophobia and racism which for Jewish ears can only sound like a bad song we have heard before, I cannot help but think we are living much closer to the world of Amichai than Balaam. The great blessings of America, degrading into curses.
Whereas in other poems, Amichai retains a hopeful humanity for his country, here we are left with bitterness. Amichai could have been looking out on America right now and written with the same irony, “how beautiful are your tents, Jacob.”
But one of the things which I appreciate about Amichai is even in his darkness, there always seems some light. “May there come something of redemption.” It is an ironic invocation of redemption. If it comes, the poet says his mouth will be open like a slaughtered animal. Not exactly a peaceful image of redemption. But nonetheless, the phrase, “may there come something of redemption,” feels so poignant. Amichai is not asking for a miracle to bring change, just something of it. Redemption will have come late and slow but a little something of it is what we need. Something of what we need to restore our souls. On this shabbat when we both pray and read from the Torah about the goodly tents of Israel, I will be praying for a little something of redemption.
Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“