Blogging the Torah: Parashat Balak, Mah Tovu Ohalech WCN

I am renewed.  I am exhausted. There is music running around my brain.  I wake up with a song in my head.  My cup is filled after a glorious week with my chaverot at the Women Cantors’ Network annual conference.  This amazing group of talented women brings together cantors, cantorial soloists, musicians, and others (some are even rabbis) interested in Jewish music, to sing, laugh, share, and engage in everything from hazzanut to folky/liturgical music.

Some of the women are professional clergy, some are lay leaders.
Some women are trained at long standing seminaries such as JTS and HUC.
Some women are trained at newer seminaries such as AJR and Hebrew College.
And some women are trained at different types of seminaries such as JSLI, RSI,  and Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk.
Some women came to this profession through yichis–their fathers were great cantors.
Some women came to it through great cantors teaching them in their communities.
Some women stumbled into the cantorate after a career as a musician or performer.
Some women developed a love of Jewish music by praying in a synagogue with a great cantor.

What is clear to me is that we are all doing sacred work.  We are helping Jews come closer to God.  We are bringing the joy of Jewish music to children, families, adults, and the elderly, in synagogues, schools, nursing homes, and elsewhere.   Some have said that women cannot be cantors.  Some have said that one is only a real cantor if you attend a “traditional” seminary.  Some decide who is “real” and who is not.

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a King named Balak who wants to get the Israelites out of his kingdom.    He is worried that the Israelites are getting too powerful.  After all, he was King and he was the one who was supposed to be able to set the rules for who did what.  But if the Israelites continued to have military victories, he might lose his power.  So King Balak called  upon Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, to curse the Israelites.  Balaam journeyed to do this.  And, with some diversions from God, instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blessed them with the words that Jews say each morning:

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov
Miskinotecha Yisrael

How good are your tents, Jacob!
Your dwelling places, Israel!

And with those words, the fate of the Israelite people, and us, was changed forever.

As we continue to go forth into this new world where spiritual leaders come from all institutions and movements, I am honored to be part of an organization that welcomes everyone (even those like me who don’t sing very well).  Perhaps if Balaam were to show up at our next conference, having been told that he had to curse WCN because its members do not meet someone’s standards, he might turn around, smile, and say:

How beautiful are your tents, oh Women Cantor’s Network

Your dwelling places welcome everyone!

And he might even join WCN, because even men can be members.

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
This entry was posted in God, Judaism, Music, Spirituality, Tefillah (prayer), Torah, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Blogging the Torah: Parashat Balak, Mah Tovu Ohalech WCN

  1. LOVE! Couldn’t have said it any better!!!

  2. Jan Morrison says:

    Really a wonderful observation/conversation/invitation, Rav Gail.

  3. Rosalie Osian says:

    Well written and beautifully expressed with authenticity. You are very real:-)

  4. Marci Vitkus says:

    Yeah! What she said!

  5. Well said. Kol HaKavod!

  6. Gail,
    This post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for your warmth, honesty, openness and acceptance. It was wonderful being with you in Ann Arbor and I look forward to the opportunity to spend more time together.

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