Tell me if this has happened to you. You’re talking to someone, perhaps you have guests over, perhaps you’re at an event or an outing, and someone compliments you. They talk about how lovely your house is, or mention how nice your outfit looks, or compliment the behavior of your kids. And you blink at them and think “my house? It’s a disaster. This outfit? I’m wearing it because I haven’t done laundry in a while, it’s nothing. My kids?! Don’t even get me started.”
It comes to us out of the blue that we receive praise where we least expected it, where someone sees something positive that we can’t. And while it could be Pollyanna, ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ thinking, sometimes it takes another person’s viewpoint to really appreciate what we have.
This week the prophet Bilaam, paid to curse Israel, instead looks down at the encampment not far from the Jordan and says instead ‘mah tovu ohalech ya’akov mishkenotecha yisrael’: how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. Imagine the Israelite response to that: ‘these things? We’ve been schlepping them for 40 years! We’re not in our promised land, we’re battered and exhausted and want to go home, and you think this is beautiful?’ And yet, the early liturgists chose these words to open every prayer service we recite in the morning. The first thing we say collectively are these words, first spoken by a non-Jew who could see something our people couldn’t.
There’s tremendous power in that, you know. On this 4th of July when many of us are feeling pretty low about the United States and its current expression of American values (or lack thereof), when we as Jews are still reeling by the deaths, the riots, the violence in Israel, it becomes that much harder to see what is beautiful, to see what is good and right, to be able to rejoice in who we are and what we stand for. It’s clear that there’s tremendous work to be done, much of it in our own community, by those gathered here tonight. “The day is short, the labor vast.” But that can’t mean, shouldn’t mean that we should see ourselves and our country only through the lens of pessimism and despair. We must say every day Bilaam’s words: How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. We must say it. Because it is true, even with all our faults and foibles. Because we need it to be true, and the more we say it, the more it becomes reality. Because we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and accept their view with joy. May it be so this July 4th and every day. Amen.