Such a good Shabbat it is, when the Torah portions of the Diaspora and Eretz Yisrael come together. Such a good Shabbat when the daf, the daily page, is full of stories that feel like from my kids’ children’s books, like the one about Yosef who loved Shabbat so much, he always would get the best foods for it, making him known by all as Yosef Mokir Shabbat (Yosef who honors Shabbat). Nearby, lived a wealthy man, who was told by astrologers that his wealth will fall into the hands of Yosef. In order to outwit the prediction, he sold all he had, bought a fine jewel which he hid in his hat. But then, a wind came, blowing the hat off of him to the river; a fish came, swallowing the shiny object in the hat, and guess who got the fine, fat fish for Shabbat, not hesitating for a moment to spend much money for it.
Shabbat remains a treasure for the Jewish people throughout the world, even if hidden like a jewel in the belly of a fish. It is a ray of light even when the week is not easy and when challenging times are up ahead, especially when facing the “Three Weeks” commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Shabbat is this constant gift; in itself a temple in the dimension of time, as said Rabbi A. J. Heschel ; a time to take a deep breath, look around and realize ma tovu, how good.
The famous ma tovu is “coincidentally” in this week’s Torah portion,a nd we wonder: ,why give so much space to the story about Balak and Bil’am, non-Jews who conspire evil against the Jewish people on their journey?
The answer might be found in the Haftara as the prophet Micah says (6:5): “my people, remember… Balak and Bil’am… In order that you may know G-d’s righteous ways”.
Where is G-d’s “righteous way” here?
Maybe it’s about turning potentially bad things to good. Bil’am tries to curse the people and the curses turn to blessings like the famous “ma tovu”. We who are created in G-d’s image, have opportunities to do that too. This is the Jewish calling. As Rav Doniel Hartman said recently in a conference I attended (through zoom, of course): “many nations celebrate their victories and hide their failures and calamities… but for us, this would be a waste. Blaming others? Anyone can do that. But taking trouble and turning them into inspiring lessons, now this is a specialty, and davka so needed now”.
G-d gives us things to learn from and work with; to turn wheat into bread; grapes into wine; olives into oil; cotton into cloth… to turn curses into blessings, heartaches and challenges into constantly growing, meaningful life.