Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Balak: What makes our tents so good?

0 Comments 04 July 2017

In his Dvar Torah to Parashat Balak, Rabbi Nativ brings us an interpretative tradition that understands Balak’s praise of the people as related to their balance between respect for family privacy and the needs of the community.

The underlying concept here we believe is that of kvod haBriot – human dignity. Of course we should also apply Hillel’s golden rule to this teaching – “Don’t do to others what is hateful to you” and so too should we respect the privacy of all, including the weak and vulnerable in our society, and the strangers in our midst – including  those still under our military rule (after 50 long years!) whose privacy is constantly  invaded, sometimes brutally.


Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Wikicommons. Public domain

“How good are your tents, O Jacob…” Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. Wikicommons. Public domain

By Dr. Rabbi Gil Nativ

Upon entering a synagogue a Jew should recite the following verse: “Ma tovu ohaleikha Yaakov, mishknotekha, Israel” [Num. 24:5] which literally should be translated, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.” The origin of this Biblical verse was a ‘compliment’ given to our people by a non-Jew, the prophet Bil’am, who is the main hero of this week’s portion even though it is named after Balak, the king who summoned Bil’am to curse the people of Israel. We should note the ambivalence of our Sages toward this gentile prophet, Bil’am: They often call him The Wicked Bil’am but on other occasions claim that in some respects his prophecy was superior even to Moses’ prophecy. Let us focus on this one verse in which Bil’am spoke favorably of our people.

Some prayer-books translate this verse differently: “How good are your sanctuaries, O Jacob, your study-houses, O Israel” [Sim Shalom, p.3]. This understanding of “tents” and “dwellings” (places for worship and for study) is based on a midrash of Rabbi Yochanan, one of the foremost 3rd century scholars, who claims that this was Bil’am’s vision of future “Batei Knesiot uVatei Midrashot” [Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b]. Apparently Rabbi Yochanan already envisioned a variety of Reform, Masorti, Orthodox and Haredi synagogues and study houses. However, in the camp of our ancestors during Moses’s lifetime, there were neither synagogues nor study houses, only one “Mishkan” – a central tent that served both for ritual (offering), and for teaching the Torah by Moses. Indeed, Midrash is never bothered by historical anachronism. What did Bil’am observe from the heights overlooking our camp?

Other sages believed that what impressed Bil’am most was how our families resided in the desert. This midrash [Talmud, B.B. 60a] claims that Bil’am noticed the strange design of the family tents: The entrance of each tent was facing the wall of the next tent in line, and the same with the next tent, so that no one will peep from inside his tent into what is happening inside another tent. In other words: He was impressed with the manner that the privacy and intimacy of each family was preserved. On one hand, Jewish tradition values the community and warns, “Do not separate yourself from public life!” [Avot 2:4] However, public life should not be at the expense of preserving the integrity of each family, which on many occasions requires the couple at the core of the family to retain privacy and intimacy.

In modern life family, privacy is often and too easily invaded. We should do our best to live so that a modern Bil’am would bless us again with the same words: “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel.” Amen!

Dr. Rabbi Gil Nativ is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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