The Living Torah is a weekly publication distributed in and around North West London. Written by members of Hasmonean High School's Sixth Form programme - we aim to bring you divrei torah for your Shabbat table each and everyweek.

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Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Many Divided Tents of Yaakov

Adapted from Twerski on Chumash (pg333)

Mah Tovu is the opening verse of Shacharit. In many communities, this verse is not recited. Although it appears to be a blessing, the feeling is that nothing benevolent could have come from the tongue of the evil Balaam. The Gemara says that all of Balaam’s ‘blessings’ reverted to being curses, except for Mah Tovu (Sanhedrin 108b). Nevertheless, some authorities did not wish to cite even this blessing. They followed the principle, “Only wickedness emanates from the wicked” (I Shmuel 24:14).

But what harm could possibly be contained in Mah Tovu?

R’ Yaakov Yosef of Polonya (one of the foremost Talmidim of the Besht) explained that the words of the true prophets are for the greater part sharp reprimands. They were critical of Bnei Yisrael’s behaviour and pointed out their dereliction, demanding that they correct their errant ways. They warned Bnei Yisrael of the grave consequences awaiting those who deviated from the Torah. Not so the false prophets. They preached that all was well and that there was no reason for concern that any harm would befall Israel.

Quoting a Pasuk in Mishlei where Shlomo Hamelech writes that the wounds inflicted out of true love and concern are trustworthy, whereas the abundant kisses of an enemy are worthless (27:6), R’ Yaakov Yosef wants to explain that Balaam’s intention was to curse Yisrael by telling them how wonderful they were. They were so perfect that they did not need to do anything to improve. The Gemara says in (Ketuvot 108b) that if you find a spiritual leader who is beloved in his community, it may be because he does not chastise them for their delinquencies in the observance of Mitzvot. We must be cautious when we hear only praise and no rebuke. As pleasant to the ear praise may be, it does not often stimulate a person to self-improvement.

When R’ Shimon Sofer became the rabbi of Cracow, he found more than a hundred synagogues and shtiblach. He realized that this proliferation of places of worship was not the result of overcrowding, but rather splintering, which was generally due to petty differences. R’ Sofer said, “Now I understand why the Gemara said that all of Balaam’s blessings reverted to curses except for Mah Tovu. Balaam’s intention was to curse Yisrael, but in his infinite mercy, Hashem twisted his tongue so that he pronounced blessings. When Bnei Yisrael sinned and lost favour with Hashem, Balaam’s intention to curse was realized.

“Mah Tovu, however, did not have to revert to a curse. It was never a genuine blessing to begin with. With his prophetic insight, Balaam saw that Jews would be nitpicking and seeking to break away and make many places of worship. His ‘blessing’ that there be many ‘tents of Yaakov’ was actually a veiled curse, and did not have to revert.

There is a principle of “In the multitude of people is a king’s glory – but in the lack of people is a minister’s ruin” (Mishlei 14:28). The finest way of honouring the Divine name would be for large congregations to have standing room only. R’ Sofer’s comments are as timely now as they were more than a century ago. We still suffer from lack of unity. The Malbim explains the second half of the above Pasuk to emphasize that even when there is an impressive display of numbers if there is a lack of unity in religious faith and understanding then it’s all for naught. Division and splits within communities realize the ‘curse’ of Balaam. Let the establishment of new places of worship be the result only of the existing shuls becoming overcrowded and let’s take step to repair the very present divides within our community.

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