At that moment, the hymn “Ma Tovu,” which we sing at the beginning of the Shacharit (morning) service, took on a much deeper meaning.
I was standing with 45 members of my congregation and their families at the base of the southern extension of the Kotel, at what is commonly referred to as “Robinson’s Arch.” This area of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park is so named after the remnant of a Herodian arch discovered by American archaeologist, Edward Robinson, which sticks out from the top of the southern tip of the Western Wall. It once formed part of an enormous staircase that took worshippers up to the Temple Mount from the Tyropoeon Valley street, a major traffic artery in the first century C.E.
Standing on what was once that street, looking up at the Temple Mount, our tour group was about to daven Shacharit and celebrate the b’nei mitzvah of six members of our group, including my own daughter, Sarah.
It was an awesome moment. As I began to lead the group in singing “Ma Tovu,” the words from this week’s Torah portion, Balak, not only rang from our mouths but resonated in my heart, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” In the Torah, these words come from the mouth of the pagan prophet, Balaam, as he looks out at the encampment of the Israelites gathered on the edge of the Promised Land. In making this pronouncement, Balaam blesses our people instead of cursing us, as the Moabite king, Balak, had wanted him to do. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b), taking the words out of context, understood our “tents” as an allusion to our synagogues and our “dwellings” to our religious schools. Consequently, our rabbinic forebears saw this verse as the perfect statement to make each morning upon entering our houses of worship and study.
At the same time, Rashi points out that “ohalecha” and “mishk’notecha” also refer to the Temple in Jerusalem, the great, ancient site of Jewish worship, even when it is in ruins. The subsequent lines of the hymn, all taken from various locations in Psalms, clearly refer to a person entering the Temple in Jerusalem to worship: “I, by your great love, enter your House, and worship in awe at your great shrine (Psalm 5:8). Adonai, I love your House of dwelling, the abode of your glory (Psalm 26:8)….” What a feeling to sing out these words standing at the foot of the Temple Mount with so many members of my congregation, about to celebrate my own daughter’s bat mitzvah!
My spiritual senses were on joyful overload when all of sudden, in the middle of singing “Mah Tovu,” I noticed our fabulous tour guide, Ezra Korman, pointing up to the ramp that we had walked down to get to where we stood at the base of the Wall. I looked up and, there, unmistakably, was Natan Sharansky, the legendary former refusenik, now Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that Sharansky’s sudden appearance was not some sort of prophetic vision. Rather, he had come to check out the area of Robinson’s Arch and how it was being used for egalitarian worship. This was the end of December, 2012 and Natan Sharansky had just been appointed to head up the commission to figure out how to create a legitimate egalitarian worship site in the area of Robinson’s Arch.
What do you do when Natan Sharansky comes to join your minyan? Well, first finish “Mah Tovu.” At least that’s what I did. Then I yelled up to him in Hebrew, “Mr. Sharansky! It is an honor to have you here. We are a group of Reform Jews from New Jersey who have come to pray at the Kotel and celebrate the b’nei mitzvah of several members of our community.”
“Mazal tov!” Sharansky replied.
I came away from that morning not only with a sense of awe and gratitude for having had the opportunity to worship with my congregants and celebrate my daughter’s bat mitzvah at such an incredible, historic site but also with a sense that I had been privileged to witness an historic moment: Natan Sharansky evaluating the situation at Robinson’s Arch, which would soon lead to the creation of an officially sanctioned egalitarian worship space at the Kotel!
My “prophetic vision” turned out, sadly, to be a delusion. After four years of promises and delays, on June 25, Prime Minister Netanyahu crushed the hopes of non-Orthodox Jews everywhere by officially capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox parties in his government and denying the sanctioning of an egalitarian worship space at Robinson’s Arch.
The practical and symbolic significance of this action cannot be underestimated. For the Kotel to truly be the great national religious site that our people believes it to be, it must be a place where all streams of Judaism can gather to worship. Reneging on the Kotel compromise is an abandonment of the principle of Jewish unity (klal yisrael) and a statement against the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Judaism. It is a violation of the principle of Jewish nationalism that unites the Jewish people — the very foundational idea of Zionism.
Kol hakavod — kudos — to the Jewish Agency for joining the various branches of the Reform and Conservative Movements here and in Israel in making a clear, unequivocal statement condemning the Israeli government’s actions reneging on its agreement to establish the egalitarian worship space at Robinson’s Arch. Still, more must be done. It is my hope that not only liberal Jews, but traditional Jews, including those non-charedi Orthodox leaders who believe in the principle of klal yisrael and profess to respect Jews who have different approaches to halachah than they do, will speak out against this outrage. Together we must say to the representatives of the Israeli government here and in Israel that this is unacceptable and we will not rest until the Kotel compromise is endorsed.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 60a) posits that what Balaam saw that led him to declare that the tents of Israel were good was the way they were arranged. Their entrances did not face towards one another out of respect for the privacy of those who live there. It is high time we, too, stop looking into one another’s metaphoric tents, our houses of worship, and judging the legitimacy of the Judaism that others practice. We don’t have to endorse what others do. But we do need to create the space, both at the Kotel and here at home, for all of us to worship as we see fit, in safety and in peace. Then will Balaam’s blessing truly be a reality: How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!