Oy, such boarders
This week’s offering, Landlord To Such A Multitude, is a straightforward response to a famous line from this coming Saturday’s Torah reading: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael! How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
If you’re a shul-goer, you’ll recognize the words: they begin the prayer traditionally recited on entering a place of Jewish worship. What is particularly sweet about these words is that they were uttered not by Moses or any other luminary found in Torah, but by Balaam, a prophet-for-hire recruited by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Israelites as they made their way across the land. The king was a wreck, for the Israelites brought havoc in their wake, a fate he did not wish to suffer. Four times Balaam opened his mouth to do his job and four times did sweet words of praise cross his lips – for the Israelites and for their unknown god. Ooopsie.
However, I want you to forget Balaam for a moment. Forget how totally peeved was King Balak when he paid good money and got nothing for it but a confirmation that all hell was about to break loose. Forget that Balaam had a talking donkey (Rembrandt’s imagining shown here) who saved his, you should pardon the expression, ass from a ministering angel out to kill him. Forget the altars and sacrifices and dashed hopes, how God intervened once again to make sure the right words were said: blessings, not curses.
I’m interested in the tents.
We have a general idea of what those tents looked like, and the tabernacle as well. We can imagine all that white and beige spread out across the desert, the tribal banners and weary Isralites, the beautiful tapestries & glinting gold of God’s dwelling place in their midst. But inside those tents…
Fast forward several thousand years. What’s happening inside the big tent of the Jewish people? My particular set of Jewish people? It’s pretty damn crowded in here – philosophical argument, historical burden, theological confusion, observance and culture and language all smooshed together, waiting every day to be sorted out. It’s a beautiful dwelling place, filled with mishegoyim and role models, sometimes one and the same; people I love and people I love not-so-much — Maimonides & Spinoza, right-wing zealots & left-wing agitators, poets & Yiddishists & modern-day prophets, Alan Dershowitz & Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem & Dr. Ruth (not to mention my relatives and the thousand thousand characters peopling all the stories I’ve been told over a lifetime, sublime, ridiculous, and deadly). And this doesn’t take into account the myriad of voices clamoring to get into my head – the folks who say that there is only one right way to be a Jew, talk or pray, think or eat or have sex like a Jew.
Read the poem & you’ll see what I mean. As the modern Israelis say, it’s balagan in here. As Muriel Rukeyser said: to be a Jew in the 20th century is to be offered a gift. A gift and a tent full of noisy boarders.
And p.s. Michael Chabon had a related op-ed in the New York Times last week. If you’ve 100% made up your mind about who’s right and who’s wrong in the Gaza flotilla incident, skip it. You’ll just get aggravated.