Judaism: Live Like Lions
As school has ended, I have had increased opportunity to enjoy davening with my young daughters. We start with Modeh Ani and soon find ourselves singing “Ma Tovu Ohaleicha Yaakov Mishkenosecha Yisroel,” “How good are your tents Jacob, and your dwelling places Israel.”
Rashi (B’Midbar 24:5) suggests that Bilaam was praising the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash, and we therefore sing his praise of our houses of worship as we enter our shuls (Anaf Yosef). It is amazing that thousands of years after Bilaam tried to curse and destroy us, we begin our daily prayer service by quoting his praise of our houses of worship.
In fact, the custom of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Shut MaHaRShal 64, Eliyahu Rabba 46:10) was to omit this verse from the daily prayers because it was authored by Bilaam whose initial intent was to curse the Jewish people.
The truth is that while Ma Tovu is certainly the most well known verse of Parshas Balak it might not be the most significant. Gemara Brachos 12b teaches that Chazal wanted to add nearly the entirety of Parshas Balak (from the beginning of the Parsha, B’Midbar 22:2, until almost the end, B’Midbar 24:25) to our daily Krias Shema, but refrained from doing such because it is a long story and would make the daily prayers burdensome on the masses.
At first glance the Gemara (Talmud) is fairly shocking. The Shema is our great statement of Kabalas Ol Malchus Shamayim. acceptance of the yoke of G-d's rule, sovereignty, oneness, and absolute control over the world, and while the story of Bilaam and Balak is interesting and instructive it does not appear to be significant enough to be added into the daily Shema..
Fortunately for us, the Gemara asks this question, why did Chazal want to add Parshas Balak to the Shema? Gemara answers that Parshas Balak contains in it the verse “Kra Shachav K’ari U’Ch’lavi Mi Yikumenu,” “He crouched and lay down like a lion and like a lion cub who can stand him up? (B’Midbar 24:9)” So there you have it, the most significant verse of Parshas Balak is not Ma Tovu, but rather the ill known, almost never referenced, and certainly not a part of my young daughters daily prayers Kra Shachav K’ari U’Ch’lavi Mi Yikumenu.
The Gemara does not however explain why this verse is so significant that if not for the length of the story, our challenged attention spans, and time constraints Chazal deemed it worthy to be a part of our Shema?
Rashi on the verse in this week’s Parsha (B’Midbar 24:9) writes that the Jews will be like lions when Hashem brings them into Eretz Yisroel. “They will live in their land with strength and with valor.” A description of security in the Land which we today certainly pray is fulfilled. Yet still there seems to be something lacking.
Gemara (Brachos 12b) adds that Bilaam prophesizes that we will be like lions laying down at night and sleeping securely, knowing that Hashem protects us. We will not have the strength of lions, but we will feel as secure as lions unafraid of attack knowing that Lo Yanum V’Lo Yishan Shomer Yisroel, that Hashem doesn’t sleep, that He guards, protects, and keeps us safe and secure at all times.
The Biblical Shema is our great affirmation of the existence and sovereignty of God, and perhaps Chazal in crafting the passages to be added to the Biblical Shema wanted to add that Hashem not only exists and controls the world, but that He also cares for us, watches over us, and protects us constantly. Chazal wanted us to know and affirm for ourselves that Hashem is not only the Creator and Active Master of the world, but that He is also caring, nurturing, and protective of His nation. Chazal wanted us to go through our day not just with the knowledge that Hashem is the Master of the world but also with the confidence that He is watching over us and protecting us. The story of Bilaam and Balak tells us that while there may be foes actively seeking our destruction, Hashem stands guard and protects us, the knowledge of which gives us the confidence to carry on our days not paranoid of attack, like the lion that sleeps unafraid of predators.
My brother, Chaim Feigenbaum z”l, used to say that when he would daven Tachanun and he would say Shomer Yisroel, Watch over Israel … he would have specific intent that God should guard and protect the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces. He would explain, that the Torah bids us to walk in God’s path, to emulate God, and be Godlike (see Rashi to Devarim 11:22). If God is the Shomer Yisroel, the guardian of Israel, if God stands on our borders and protects us so that we can live securely, then those who stand on our borders protecting us and allowing us to live with confidence in the land are emulating God and fulfilling the great mitzvah of V’halachta B’Drachav. He would pray for those emulating God in this fashion because “Im Hashem Lo Yishmor Ir Shav Shakad Shomer,” “if Hashem doesn’t guard a city than the watchman is keeping his post for naught (Tehillim 127:1),” but he would do it with confidence because “Kra Shachav K’ari U’Ch’lavi Mi Yikumenu” because he believed that God stood guard watching over us and them.
Chazal wanted us to reaffirm in our daily Shema that B’Shachveinu U’V’Kumeinu, when we lie down and when we awake, Hashem is always nearby, watching, guarding, and protecting us, giving us the security and confidence to live each day to the fullest.