Posted by: Subway Conductor | June 25, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Balak

           This week’s Torah portion is unique and very unusual. Moses and the Jewish People are mostly in the background and the narrative focuses on Balaam the son of Beor. What is unique is that Balaam is a non-Jewish prophet. Our portion contains three chapters which tell the story of how Balak the king of Moab hired Balaam to come and curse the Jewish People and it contains several of his prophecies.

           Our sages tell us that Balaam was a great prophet. Perhaps as great as Moses. “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” says the verse in Deuteronomy (34:10). “But one has arisen among the nations. Who is this? Balaam, son of Beo.” (Sifre – a Midrash on Deuteronomy) However, despite his prophetic abilities, Balaam is a wicked character. In Pirkei Avot, he is compared to Abraham. “A generous eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Abraham, our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked.” (Pirkei Avot 5:19)

           We learn something important from this comparison of Balaam with Abraham. What similar situation did the two of them face?

           When Abraham made a valiant effort to save any righteous people who might be in Sodom, he appealed to G-d and when he failed the Torah tells us that “Abraham returned to the place where he stood.” In the case of Balaam, the Torah relates how he appealed to G-d to curse the Jewish People and when his attempt failed, instead of acknowledging his failure, he moves to a different location to try again. Did Balaam really believe that his failure was due to the place? Did he think that by moving to another spot, his attempt would succeed? Apparently, Balaam never considered the possibility that he was the problem, not the place. Perhaps his prayer was not worthy of being answered. Which, of course, it was not. He simply moves from place to place, thinking that the change in location will do the trick. Abraham, on the other hand, understood that his prayer was not answered because it was not worthy. He goes back to the same location where he started. This is an example of the haughty spirit of Balaam and the humble spirit of Abraham that Pirkei Avot pointed out.

           We learn a practical lesson from this comparison as well. One should have a fixed place in the synagogue to daven. The Talmud states, “Whoever establishes a set place for prayer, the God of Abraham will come to his aid, and when he dies they will say about him, ‘What a humble man, what a pious man. He is a disciple of Abraham, our father.’”

           There are two aspects to Jewish prayer – kevah and kavanahKavanah is the intentionality, the deep-felt emotion that we bring to our prayers. Having Kavanah is what makes each of our prayers unique. Kevah is fixity, the elements of prayer that remain the same. We have fixed times for prayer. We have a fixed text of the prayers. And we should have a fixed place to pray. Returning to the same place every day, or every week, in the synagogue provides a sense of constancy. It is part of the kevah, the fixity of our prayers.

The need for Kavanah requires no proof. It seems obvious that when we pray, we need to focus on what we are saying and that we should fill our prayers with desire, hope, yearning for their fulfillment. Our praise of G-d and our thanksgiving must be sincere and heart-felt. But, when it comes to kevah, some might question its importance. Why do I have to say the same words, at the same time, and at the same place, every day?

           Having a fixed liturgy is essential to Jewish continuity. The Jewish prayer service has, of course, changed over the centuries in some ways. But, in its main parts it has remained the same. I am using the same words that my grandfather and his grandfather used to pray to G-d. I am connected to the Jewish People throughout the centuries who have prayed to G-d using essentially the same text of the prayerbook. It also allows me to go anywhere in the world and attend a service in which I can participate. If one tries to pray only using kavanah, discarding the fixed liturgy, what will happen? For a day or two, you might spontaneously come up with the words, expressing to G-d your inner feelings and needs. But I do not believe that you can continue in this way over any extensive period of time. And how would a congregation do this? Communal prayer would be impossible. Our sense of continuity with the past and with other Jews would be lost.

           Moreover, we may not have kavanah every day. Some days I may not be in the mood for davening. But, if I only pray when I feel motivated, I may end up not praying most of the time. There is a lot to be said for habit – which is kevah. If I am there every day, one never knows when I might feel a strong sense of connection and bring a lot of kavanah to my davening. Being there is the essential element.

           A fixed place in the synagogue is an element of the kevah. It is part of the routine of prayer that makes it possible for us to occasionally find inspiration for serious engagement in the service. This may seem counter-intuitive. But having a routine helps us prepare for prayer. It helps put us into the right frame of mind. When we come to the synagogue and stand in our usual place (and for a man, putting on a tallis) and we start saying the introductory section of the service, these are all signals that it is time to concentrate and get ready to engage in a relationship with G-d. It is not always easy to focus and this is why these elements of kevah are so important. They help us to achieve the spiritual experience that we are hoping for. When we do not achieve that spiritual experience, let us not be like Balaam who would decide to go somewhere else and try something different. We remain steadfast in the tradition we have inherited from Abraham.

Good Shabbos!!


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