Parshat Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8.
There’s a special feeling that comes with entering a Jewish space.
I guess before I go on, I should probably clarify what I mean by “Jewish space,” because it is not at all a monolithic designation. It doesn’t look the same to everybody, and it doesn’t require religious overtones. It could be a synagogue, a beit midrash (a place of study), a Judaica shop or simply a Jewish home during Shabbat dinner or lunch. But it might also be your favorite restaurant along Emek Refaim in Jerusalem; the rock wall or the lakeside stage at Tamarack; maybe it’s one of the devastatingly moving exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. Whatever the purpose, whatever the context, Jewish space is space that feels Jewishly significant, space that feels different.
It’s hard to articulate exactly what that difference is, but it’s there, undeniably and palpably. For thousands of years, Jews, who have been constantly denied a permanent home, have somehow created comfort, depth and meaning in the spaces that others have taken for granted. They all feel, even to the most removed and distant Jews, known and familiar. I believe, that if we look carefully, we will see that the common denominator in all of those spaces is a sense of community, a sense of family, a sense of belonging that is sui generis in this world of divisiveness and individualism.
From the moment that our ancestors gathered together at the banks of the Yam Suf, the sea of reeds, our home has been wherever we can be together. Before the glory of King David’s Jerusalem, before the rabbinic academies of Tiveria and Yavneh, Sura and Pumbedita, before the great synagogues of Amsterdam and Krakow or the busy neighborhoods of Boro Park and Crown Heights, the prophet Balaam, gazing from the cliffs above the Israelite camp, opened his lips to curse this foreign people but instead sang words of blessing:
Mah tovu oheleicha Yakov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael.
How beautiful are your tents, you people of Jacob, your dwelling places, children of Israel. (Numbers 24:5)
We didn’t need the pyramids of Egypt or the temples of Babylon. We needed each other. While the rest of the ancient world built with brick and stone, we built with charity and lovingkindness. While they built arches and monuments, we built psalms and prayers. The “eternal cities” of Rome and Persepolis have fallen along with the entirety of their empires, but the Jewish family remains.
But the beautiful tents of our peoplehood, the dwelling places of our great communities still need maintenance and reinforcement, still need the dedication and care that made them the envy of King Balak and his prophet. If our foundation is family, if our beams and pillars are the love and support we have for one another, then it is up to each and every one of us to fill in the cracks that threaten our structure, to paint the inside and outside of our tents with warmth and joy, and to lay out mats of welcome for any and all.
Jewish space is not really space at all. It is a holy oneness that we build every day. As we approach this Shabbat, the ultimate edifice of sacred community, let us challenge ourselves to do more than just sustain our beautiful tents. Let’s build them even higher, make them even more vibrant and meaningful, and fill the air with the songs of the day of rest, our space, our palace … our home.
Yonatan Dahlen is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.