July 5, 2012
A people with a different set of priorities
I remember, as a high school student, hearing our Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Shlomo Riskin relate one of the questions he used to ask when interviewing prospective rebbe’im (rabbinic teachers) for our yeshiva high school.
Amidst a flurry of questions designed to test their knowledge of halachah (Jewish law) and Talmud, he would ask them what they would do (and what the halachic requirement would be), if after sending away for an electric shaver, the company accidentally sent two shavers. He was amazed at how many young rabbis would respond by delving into the question of whether, once the company sent the extra shaver, they were giving it to you, and whether the laws of theft applied equally to non-Jews.
Needless to say, he was only interested in hiring the teachers who responded without thinking, that they would send it back!
Where is the balance between spiritual development and our quest to develop a deeper relationship with G-d on the one hand, and the importance of ethical excellence on the other? How can we ensure, not only in ourselves, but in our children and students, that spiritual growth does not come at the expense of simple ‘mentschlechkeit’: the value of being a good person?
This week’s portion, Balak, gives us some valuable insight regarding this question, from a most unlikely source.
At the beginning of any siddur (prayer book), is a beautiful poem, known as the ‘Ma Tovu,’ traditionally recited as one enters the synagogue.
“Ma tovu’ O’halecha Yaakov, Mishke’no’techa Yisrael....” “How goodly are your tents, oh Yaakov; and your dwelling places, oh Israel....”
Ask most Jewish six-year-olds in Hebrew school, and they will most likely be able to sing the opening words of the first stanza. And yet, most people don’t realize the source of these beautiful verses. Three thousand years ago, these words were recited by a non-Jewish prophet, bent on cursing the Jewish people and seeing their destruction, who G-d caused to bless and praise them instead.
Fresh from its successes on the battlefield against the armies of Og and the Amorites, the Jewish people are about to encounter a new and perhaps even more sinister challenge.