This week’s Torah Portion, Balak, takes place on a gevul, or border, between the Israelites and the Moabites. The King of Moab, Balak, is not too happy that the Israelites are encroaching on his territory and enlists a prophet named Balaam to curse them. After a lot of fits and starts, including a story about a talking donkey, Balaam finally arrives at the border. However, instead of cursing our ancestors as Balak instructed him to do, he blesses them, offering the famous line: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkonetecha Yisrael, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”
In Western New York, we live on a border between the United States and Canada. This means Canadian flags often fly in our area, and if you are stuck with Canadian money you can use it at some local vendors. We often do not recognize how very much we are influenced by our neighboring country. Last Sunday, a day after Canada Day and two days before July Fourth, I visited the Holloway Memorial Chapel to lead services. Holloway Memorial Chapel is located in Ridgeway, Ontario, just over the Peace Bridge, and is made up of both Canadian and American members. While it is impossible to distinguish between the two different groups, on this particular Sunday we had a little test in the form of our respective national anthems. As the choir led “O Canada” and then “The Star-Spangled Banner” I could look around the room and see who was singing each song. There was something beautiful in being there to see how very integrated our local populations are with another.
We often think of Canadian culture and American culture being alike, however there are many we are different, including the way we celebrate our national birthdays. While I saw many Canadian flags waving on that Sunday, and a few Happy Birthday Canada signs, it was nowhere near the level of patriotism shown in America, especially given that July 1st marked Canada’s 150th anniversary. Sometimes these differences can get in the way, and make us distrust one another. And, yet, sometimes, if we are really able to listen and understand one another’s distinct cultures, it makes both of us stronger. I think of the verses prior to the “Mah Tovu:” “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme he said: These are the words of Balaam, the son of Beor, the words of a man whose eyes have been opened…” After my short stay in Canada my eyes too have been opened to better appreciate our unique place in Western New York, on the border of these two amazing, democratic and free nations.