How beautiful are your tents?

Parashat Balak 5781 / פרשת בָּלָק
Torah Portion: Numbers 22:2-25:9 

Emblazoned above the aron kodesh (holy ark) in our synagogue’s sanctuary are the Hebrew words Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisra’el. “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Yisrael” (Numbers 24:5.) 

These are the words of Balaam, a prophet hired by the king of the Moabites to curse the Israelites so that Israel would fall to them in battle. As Balaam had informed his employer repeatedly, though, he could only utter the words that God placed in his mouth, and God would only bestow blessings upon Israel. Thus, after several failed attempts to curse Israel, Balaam comes out with a five-verse ode to Israel beginning with the verse above and ending with “Blessed are they who bless you. Cursed are they who curse you” (Numbers 24:9).

We begin our morning service with the opening line of Balaam’s ode as a way of welcoming worshippers into our sacred space. Implicit in this welcome is the idea that it is the worshippers themselves who make our “tent” beautiful. In addition, it is the worshippers who transform this “tent” into a dwelling place for the Divine. A famous Chassidic teaching says that God dwells wherever we let God in. It follows, therefore, that our sanctuary becomes a container for the Divine Presence only when it is full of people who are seeking God. On its own, our synagogue is architecturally very appealing. It becomes “tov” or truly beautiful when it is full of people.

I believe our synagogue is truly beautiful but that it can become even more beautiful as we welcome and include more individuals and families who are seeking a spiritual home. We can become more welcoming and inclusive the more we create a space where people can be their full, authentic selves. We become more beautiful when we declare publicly and unambiguously that we offer a space where all persons feel safe and validated. Just as Balaam declared loudly and clearly that Israel is a Godly community, so too must we let it be known that we are a Godly community that values people for being their full, authentic selves.

What do I mean when I talk about valuing people for their full, authentic selves? To use the lingo of LGBT Pride Month, it means letting people be “out” in our midst and embracing them for who they are. 

Balaam was not allowed to be his authentic self. As a prophet, he was tuned into the voice of God. Ultimately, Balak, the Moabite king, sent him packing and without pay because he could not become something he was not, which was an enemy of Israel. Balaam tried three times to curse Israel. After all, he accepted a job and he wanted to get paid. In the end, he was told he doesn’t belong in Midian.

Balaam was not the only one in the story who couldn’t be his authentic self. His donkey, upon which he rode from his home of Petor on the Euphrates, also was oppressed for being himself. He, like Balaam, was tuned into the presence of the Divine. God sent an angel to make Balaam’s journey to Midian difficult, so the angel stood in front of the donkey and caused him to veer into a field. Balaam hit the donkey. Then the angel stood in front of the donkey and caused him to bump into a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Balaam hit the donkey. Then the angel appeared in front of the donkey in a narrow alley and all the donkey could do was lie down in front of the angel. Balaam hit the donkey. And then Balaam saw what the donkey had seen the whole time — an angel wielding a sword. He had been punishing the donkey because the donkey was responding to the Divine Presence, just as Balaam knew that he, too, would respond to the Divine Presence. And yet, Balaam showed no mercy on his poor donkey.

We are all created in God’s image, but God’s image manifests itself differently in each of us. Some of us are Balaam, some of us are the donkey, but we all respond to the voice of God within each of us in unique ways. It is incumbent upon us to embrace the Balaams and the donkeys, not to beat them, not to send them packing, to let them know we welcome them.

This is the last week of LGBT Pride Month, also known as Gay Pride Month, a month that challenges us and all faith communities to reflect on how truly beautiful we are — how welcoming, inclusive, Godly we are. Pride Month challenges us to reflect on how well we welcome and embrace LGBT persons. Parenthetically, it should also challenge us to consider how we welcome and embrace all persons who historically have felt marginalized by society — persons of color, persons with disabilities, persons experiencing poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Now, I do not know the sexual orientation or gender identity of every adult and child who is a member of my congregatoin, but I do know that many of us are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, children or dear friends of people who identify as LGBT. I would like to believe that all of our LGBT friends, family members and congregants do, in fact, feel safe, welcomed, included and fully embraced.

It’s one thing to believe, even to know, that all who are part of our community feel safe and fully embraced, but how is our community perceived by people who are not yet members who, for whatever reasons, aren’t so sure they will feel safe, welcomed, included and fully embraced by our community? What about those people who have been traumatized by “organized religion” either at home, in their places of worship, or in their communities? Do we do a good job of signaling to them that they belong in our community? In what ways do we express our warmth and inclusivity well before they dare cross our threshold? What could we be doing better in our signaling? These are not just rhetorical questions. They are real questions that all of us must be asking ourselves if we are to become the version of ourselves that we aspire to be. To be sure, they are questions we should ask ourselves when it comes to all kinds of people who could enrich our community through their presence and unique contributions.

On this, the final Shabbat of Pride Month, I want to invite us to consider these questions. As we read the words “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” may we find the courage to ask how we can make this tent, this dwelling place for God’s presence, an even more welcoming space for LGBT people and, indeed, all who are searching for a spiritual home.