Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.
This week’s Parasha contains possibly one of the most famous passages in the torah – known to anyone who has been inside a shul as it lent itself to our liturgy – “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”. The famous blessing of the prophet Balaam, sent by the king Balak to curse the Israelites. Balaam, a true prophet asked G-d, on receiving orders from Balaam that he wished to hire him to curse the Israelites, asked G-d whether he should go, and was told that he may but that he should only say what G-d told him to say, and thus, instead of cursing the Israelites he ended up blessing them.
Understandably the Rabbinic tradition, not overly concerned with aesthetic matters took the original meaning of Balaam’s blessing from the realm of the aesthetic and made it into a statement of ethics. Naturally the rabbis understood Balaam to have given a blessing that related to the morally upright behaviour of the Israelite people, rather than simply their tent making skills.
In a famous midrash (brought by Rashi, on the verse), the rabbis explain that the meaning of Balaam’s blessing is that the Israelites displayed appropriate respect for each other by positioning their tents in such a way that preserved the dignity and privacy of each other. This is not the “pshat” explanation of the verse – rather it reflects that the Rabbis assumed the “goodness” which Balaam saw in our tents to be a measure of the ethical standards that were apparent from the way the Israelites went about building their homes, their lives and their communities.
The unrecognized village El-Arakib demolished, Aug 2010, Israel cc: flicker by By Physicians for Human Rights - Israel
Each year, as we come to this Parasha, and we read the story of the prophet who could not go against G-d, I ask myself – what would Balaam say if he saw our dwelling places today? What ethical judgements might he make? If he were to see any tents at all, would they be those of the “unrecognised” Bedouin villages of the northern Negev? What would these tents say about the ethical behaviour of the children of Israel? If G-d did not let Balaam lie, what truth would he have to tell us with regard to these tents? Would they be called goodly?
As for camps – what does the sight of Palestinians living in refugee camps say about our ethical behaviour? How did we allow this to still be the case so many years on? (Of course this is a deliberate ploy by both Palestinian leadership and the leadership of other Arab nations – but do the prophets of the world not ask of us an even higher standard?) But it is far too easy to bemoan just our treatment of “the other” in our society – for whom our tent openings symbolise an unwelcoming home – but also within Jewish society in the land of Israel today – would our tents pass muster?
At the end of Parashat Balak, we are told the blood chilling story of zealous violence committed by Pinhas – on the background of a breakdown in societal cohesion symbolised by a deadly plague. The torah’s approach to Pinhas seems ambiguous – on the one hand, G-d seems to see his act of zealotry to have been carried out on his behalf. On the other hand, Pinhas’ reward also seems to be a form of rehabilitation – he is given the “Brit Shalom” – the covenant of peace. Does that imply that perhaps his destiny was to learn peaceful ways? According the rabbinic tradition (Yalkut Shimoni, 771), Pinhas did not die, but lived on in the form of Elijah the prophet – who also did not die, and was also “zealous for the Eternal”). Is it possible that the Brit Shalom is recognition that Pinhas did mean well, but he needed some time to learn what G-d wanted. G-d does not want our zealotry for his sake – but rather we should be servants to each other – we should be welcoming to each other – our tents should be tents of peace, in which everyone is welcome, like that of Avraham Avinu. In another midrash, (Avot D’Rabi Natan Mishna 7), we are told that Eliyahu (who is also Pinhas) was rebuked for “defending the rights of the father (G-d) but not the son (the people of Israel)” while Yona defended the son and not the father and Jeremiah defended both. It seems as if it is Jeremiah who is being held up as the role model. Another Midrash is even clearer – once again in Yalkut Shimoni (Kings 1, remez 217), G-d makes it clear that Eliyahu’s zealotry is not what is required from a prophet of Israel, and suggests that it is because of this zealotry that god fires him and asks him to appoint/anoint Elisha in his stead.
It is unclear if Pinhas ever learnt his lesson – but the inclusion of the beginning of his tale seems to contradict what we read earlier in the story of Balak, Balaam and our beautiful tents?
The Connection between Pinhas and Balaam
When seeking to understand the connection between Pinhas and Balaam’s blessing, we must realise that there is a contradiction. How is it possible that within a few short chapters of being blessed for our beautiful community, we are hearing of licentious behaviour, G-d-sent plagues and political violence? Were our tents really ever so beautiful? It simply cannot be that Balaam truly saw a just society living in the encampment – not only because of the evidence offered later in the parasha, but because logically, we know that such a society does not exist. Rather Balaam’s story comes to teach us that we should live as if a true prophet is always coming to search us out, is always looking at how we build our home. What do our entranceways and checkpoints look like? How welcoming are we? How do we treat each other? The foreign prophet could be named Balaam or Goldstone – but it is not for the prophet’s sake that we should be on our best behaviour – but our own. We should desire to look around and say, “How goodly are our tents.” We must remember that when we cease to act righteously to one another, zealotry and violence will surely follow – both among ourselves and towards those around us.
May we create our own Brit Shalom, and not need to be taught it by Hashem as a rehabilitative exercise.
May we merit finding ourselves in goodly tents and may we be a blessing to ourselves and to all nations.