The commandment to love others as oneself applies at all times. Even for those of us who do not have this prayer in our liturgy, before praying is a particularly apt time to remember it. It can help begin prayer with an attitude of love towards others.
The opening prayer found in Ashkenazi and Sefarad siddurim, which follows the above statement in Chabad siddurim, is the perhaps more familiar ‘mah tovu’ prayer: “How good are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, Israel.”
These words come from a rather surprising source in this week’s Parsha. Moabite King Balak hired the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to curse the Jews. Balaam consulted with God, refused, consulted again, and finally agreed to go on the condition that he would only say what God tells him to say. When Balaam finally receives and speaks his revelation, it is not a curse but a blessing.
Although Balaam and Balak had originally set out to harm Israel, they end up blessing Israel. The prayer “Mah tovu,” or “how good are your tents,” is such a powerful blessing that we say it every morning at the beginning of our prayers.
By saying this prayer, we teach ourselves an important lesson: just as we are aware of our responsibility to love others, so also we begin our prayers with the awareness that we can be loved by others, and in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Balaam and Balak began by trying to destroy us, but became an unlikely channel of blessing. As a result of their actions, Balaam ends up speaking God’s love to us.
According to Sanhedrin 105b, Ruth the Moabite was a descendant of Balak. We see in the book of Ruth that Ruth embodies chessed, or “unconditional love,” in all her actions. She willingly chooses to follow her impoverished mother-in-law Naomi and takes a leading role in supporting her. She then approaches Boaz for his help and he agrees to marry her, finding in her choice to be with him an act of chessed both to Naomi and to himself.
Balak and Balaam came to curse Israel out of hate, but God made of a descendant of theirs the embodiment of love. And when Balaam attempts to curse Israel, the curse turned into a blessing. This parsha and the prayer of “mah tovu” remind us that hate can turn to love and that curses can turn into blessings. When we begin our prayers with a line from the blessing of Balaam, we remember not just to love others but to accept love from others, even from the most unlikely sources.
Rabbi Dr. Devorah Schoenfeld is a professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago, IL.