Tonight is Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz, which means that we’re at the intersection of two different energies. It is a night where, in the same way that on Shabbat we each have two souls, we hold two stories.
The less familiar story, perhaps, is about this date. The 17th of Tammuz is the anniversary of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE and, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, also the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians some 650 years earlier.
In both cases, the Temple, the center of Judaism, of our collective life, wasn’t destroyed until Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av, which is coming up in a few weeks. But this day, the 17th of Tammuz, is the day that stone shattered and the defenses gave way. A time of fear and anxiety. Not weeping for what was lost, but bracing for what still could be lost. The 17th of Tammuz is a time of shattering – our tradition also says that it was on this day that Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Prophet, shattered the first set of tablets when he came down the mountain and saw the Children of Israel dancing around the Golden Calf. This is a day of shattering, of defenses breached, and in our experience of the world in this moment it is easy to identify with a period of fear about what might come next.
But Shabbat also has something to say. Shabbat likes wholeness. Shabbat often says, “let’s put aside brokenness for a day.” And so the dawn-to-dusk fast that takes place on the 17th of Tammuz gets postponed. The Jews around the world who follow the custom of fasting will do that not tomorrow, but Sunday instead.
I said that like having two neshamot, we have two stories tonight. One is the breach of the walls of Jerusalem so many years ago. And the other is this week’s Torah portion, Balak.
Balak was the king of Moab, a great nation. And the Children of Israel, fleeing their captivity in Egypt, were now refugees, camped on Balak’s border. There were hundreds of thousands of Israelites in their tents. Balak didn’t want the Israelites anywhere near his country; he wanted them to go back where they came from.
So he hired Bil’am – a great prophet and shaman – to curse the Israelites and drive them away. And while the rabbis of antiquity vilify Bil’am for his willingness to take on the commission, Torah tells us that he was in communication with YHWH, our God, and he repeatedly told Balak the King of Moab that he could and would only say the words that YHWH put in his mouth.
In the story’s climactic scene, Bil’am makes it to the overlook, despite an invisible angel that pushes Bil’am’s donkey off course; despite Bil’am beating the donkey and the donkey speaking back to him in human language. Bil’am makes it to the overlook and sees, arrayed before him, a great valley, filled end to end with the tents of the Children of Israel, tents of every shape and color, with the hot wind blowing through the flaps. He opens his mouth as if to curse, and the words that come out are these:
מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל
Mah tovu ohaleykha Ya’akov; mishk’noteykha Yisrael.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel.
Bil’am is moved, either by God, or by his deepest heart, to see and declare the beauty in these people, these refugees, represented in the simplicity and honesty of their tents – homes built mostly of hope, carried close to their skins. These are not stone dwellings. These are not palaces or temples or immovable city walls. These are the simplest of dwellings. They look fragile but they are resilient. They can bend with the wind. And if they topple, they can be quickly set upright.
So . . . how do these two stories, these two souls, speak to each other tonight?
We are standing in a moment of danger and anxiety. The place where we dwell – this land, this democracy, this planet – this place has not been destroyed, but the walls have been breached. Our own senses of wholeness and hope have been breached. And how does this Torah portion respond? Maybe we look around at each other and see we are not in fact made of stone; we are not subject to shattering. We are tents – organic, mobile, resilient. Our simplest selves – they are the blessing. We are planted gently on this Earth, each of us unique, each one of us a shelter, each one of us unbothered by wind. Each of us blessed with inherent nimbleness, resiliency, simple integrity. Mah tovu ohaleykha Ya’akov, mishk’noteykha Yisrael.
In our tradition, when we wake up from a troubling dream, there is a special prayer we pray. In it we ask for our dreams to be healed. It ends this way:
וכשם שהפכת את דברי בלעם הרשע לברכה, הפוך–נא את כל חלומותי לטובה
Ukh’shem shehafakhta et divrei Bil’am harasha’ liv’rakhah, hafokh-na et kol chalomotay l’tovah.
And just as you, God, transformed the words of the ill-meaning Bil’am into blessing, so transform all of my dreams into good.
And so tonight on this Shabbat, the 17th of Tammuz, we will let go of the worry about our hard walls; we will feel the blessing of each of our tents and the strength of our collective encampment, and we will ask that all that is troubling be transformed into good.