In Parashat Balak, Bilaam utters perhaps the most famous poem in Jewish liturgy. He says Ma Tovu, “how goodly are your tents of Jacob…” A great deal of ink is spent on this first line. But the poem continues, and in a manner that is more forceful and more revealing. It continues in a way that unlocks the place of our current parsha, Masei.
Bilaam continues: “Like winding brooks, like gardens by the river’s side, as aloes which the Lord has planted, and like cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.”
The critical word in this poetical outpouring is the word for brooks. It is nachal.
After the sin of the golden calf, after Moshe has convinced Hashem to spare the Jewish people, he makes one final request. He asks that we be made Hashem’s nachal. Here, this word is often translated as inheritance. Of course, Hashem can inherit nothing; everything is already His. But in other contexts, we see the word means something else. It is a stream, or a brook, or a river valley. It is territory carved out by water and it is that water itself.
Before the sin of the calf we had a special relationship to Hashem. We were his servants. But after the calf, we have a much closer relationship. Our fate is tied to Hashem and our existence to our relationship to Him. Last but not least, we become Hashem’s stream, cutting a river valley of G-dliness into our world.
With Az Yashir Moshe, the Song of the Sea, we praise Hashem for making a dry path through waters. We were a physical people, a low down people. And Hashem held the waters back. But with Az Yashir Yisrael, the song of the plain sung in Parashat Chukat, the people are gathered by a law-giver – to be given water. And their well is dug by princes and excavated by the people and it flows over mountains and into dry plains. That stream is us. We are the water – the spiritual people splitting the dry land. Parshat Chukat is a parsha of reintegration – of a new and holy people reentering the real world.
Bilaam completes the vision. It starts with tents, the origin of our continuing relationship. But it continues with us flowing like an established brook. It continues with the stream of G-d spreading into many waters and changing the world forever. This is our national reality.
While there have been a few hiccups and challenges and setbacks in our history, this imagery runs throughout the book of Bamidbar.
Perhaps this is why our path is so completely retraced. Moshe is recording the flowing of the waters of holiness – from their trickling origins in Egypt to their flowing magnitude on the borders of Israel.
And the parsha continues. Because the destination of this nachal is the Land of Israel. It is in the Land that relationship becomes concrete. We can go from being a stream flowing through the desert to forming the physical reality defined by that stream; we can take a land and transform it from hills and valleys to the place of Hashem.
And so the Torah records, as the final stage, how we will allocate and define the Land that represents our marriage to Hashem. We have lands dedicated to permanent G-dly relationships, lands dedicated to largely unbridled human change and creativity and lands that serve our connection to G-d. And we have laws that dictate that those who have sullied their souls with murder cannot be part of our nachal while those who have destroyed unintentionally can have their broken relationship repaired with the simple passing of human time.
The book of Bamidbar ends, poetically, with the specific demonstration that even if one has only daughters, the family’s physical relationship to the stream of G-dliness will remain unbroken.
Today, we remain Hashem’s nachal. But our connection to the lands of our families has been broken.
No man or men can restore it – it requires an act of G-d. An act that will co-exist with our fulfillment of the prophecy of Bilaam.
May it our blessing to realize the fullness of our unique place as the nachal of Hashem.