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Toward Shabbat: Balak

This past week, as part of my summer coursework in chaplaincy and spiritual care, my cohort examined the tension of keva and kevana—that which is structured and that which is spontaneous—in prayer. As a group of emerging clergy across faith traditions, we unpacked this tension through the lens of gratitude. A question that clearly transcended the boundaries of our different traditions and theological orientations: Which should come first, the inclination toward gratitude, or the manifestation of its expression?

While we did not arrive at any one fixed conclusion, I was struck by the ways the structure of our liturgy invites us in toward the latter—a prescribed set of texts and poetry, narrative and blessings—that is intended to support us on a gratitude journey, even when that very gratitude is in process.

This week in Parashat Balak, we read the roots of one such liturgical touchpoint. Tasked with relaying a curse, the prophet Balaam finds himself overflowing with abundant blessing, declaring:

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

This powerful moment of spontaneous blessing made its way into the liturgy early on in the canonization process. We see reference to this in one of the earliest prayer books, the ninth century Babylonian Seder Rav Amram Gaon. Here, one is instructed to “enter a synagogue and say: ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!’” (Numbers 24:5). “But as for me, in the abundance of Your lovingkindness will I come into Your house; I will bow down toward Your holy temple in the fear of You.” (Psalms 5:8) Through these two verses from Tanakh, the act of daily gratitude becomes ritualized and habitualized, and to this day, we sing these lines upon engaging in prayer each morning in our sacred spaces. A moment of spontaneous prayer, embedded into our daily lives through fixed practice.

As I reflect on the profound privilege to serve as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow here at BJ these past two years, I find myself struck by the endless opportunities for blessing and gratitude—fixed and spontaneous, subtle and abundant, intentional and surprising.

Through facilitating prayer in our beautiful Sanctuary—be it brimming with the sound of our community’s voices or the emotional presence of our members joining us virtually from all corners of the country—I have found new connection to the words of our prayers.

Through teaching and learning Torah with learners across generations, I have traveled new depths into the texts of our ancestors, deepening my own understanding and awakening curiosity as I joined students’ learning journeys.

Through the privilege of sitting with BJ community members in profound moments of transition, I have expanded my sense of wonder and awe at the rhythm of life and the role of Divine process and connection.

Through learning from my spiritual leaders and teachers—Rabbis Roly, Felicia, and Becca, Hazzan Ari, and the fellows, staff, and lay leadership—I have been at once humbled and excited by the long road ahead of endless Torah that will take a lifetime to learn.

To walk into this space and say mah tovu, how good it is to be here in this mishkan—this space of sanctity and connection—for this I am truly grateful. I am grateful that I will continue to walk into this space and say these words as part of the team leading prayer on Yamim Nora’im and other touchpoints of music and tefillah throughout the coming year. I am grateful to continue to call BJ my shul and spiritual home, together with my husband Dave and our son Nadav. And I am grateful to you, the BJ community, who has taught and gifted me so much on this journey.

Deborah Sacks Mintz

Written By Deborah Sacks Mintz

Deborah Sacks Mintz is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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