January 28, 2020

Weekly Parsha: Balak

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! –

Kylie Ora Lobell
Contributing Writer, Jewish Journal 

Balak is a doozy of a parsha. There are curses and blessings, yet another anti-Semitic ruler and … a talking donkey (not voiced by Eddie Murphy, but by God). This parsha is the perfect example of what the Jewish people have been experiencing since we were born. Other nations try to eliminate us, but we always survive. In the Torah, it was apparent that we survived because of God’s intervention. When revelation stopped occurring, we had to believe that we still had miracles without seeing God’s work with our own eyes. 

In this verse, the non-Israelite Bilaam is blessing the Jewish people, despite King Balak’s fervent desire that he curse them instead. Bilaam believes in HaShem and fears the wrath of Him more than his king. He sees the magnificent splendor and holiness of the Jewish people. I can only hope that there are more Bilaams instead of Balaks around us. 

Lately, it seems like the latter, with growing anti-Semitism around the world. Thankfully, we have many non-Jewish allies like Bilaam, but that alone won’t help us. We also need to uphold our end of the bargain with God and be a light unto this world. We must be the best versions of ourselves while following the principles of the Torah and fulfilling God’s will. This is what is going to strengthen the Jewish people. We’ve survived much worse and we will continue to thrive, but only if we do our part, staying strong in our beliefs and putting total faith in HaShem. 

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

Names are extremely important in the Torah. They are the key to our identity. The Hebrew for name is shem — the very two letters central to the Hebrew word for soul, neshamah. 

The first of our patriarchs was Abram. Once he discovered God, his name was forevermore changed to Abraham, a shortened form of his mission to be “father of many nations.” Never again would he be referred to as Abram. 

Jacob also had his name changed. After his fight with the angel of Esau, he became Israel. Yet strangely enough, the change of name does not remain exclusive. It is almost as if the Bible cannot make up its mind whether he is one or the other. And remarkably enough in this blessing from the prophet Bilaam — a verse so important that it is commonly recited as the first prayer upon entering the synagogue — both names are used in the very same sentence! 

Even as the verse starkly presents us with the problem, it also offers the solution. 

Jacob is the man of peace; Israel is the warrior. Jacob chooses flight, Israel prefers fight. Which is the correct path? Ecclesiastes pithily told us: “There is a time for peace and there’s a time for war.” The wise person understands life demands both approaches. 

When to be Jacob and when to be Israel? “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob.” Our homes must be guided by compromise. “Your holy places, Israel.” For the sacred, we must be willing to sacrifice and even to fight in defense of the holy. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
Professor of Philosophy, American Jewish University

What did Bilaam see that made him praise the tents of Jacob? The Rabbis say it was that the opening of the tent of one family faced the wall of the tent of their neighbor so that each family enjoyed privacy (B. Bava Batra 60a).

This is one of several verses in the Torah (another, for example, is Deuteronomy 24:11) that produced a robust set of Jewish laws to guard our own privacy and that of others. This includes both concerns of intrusion and disclosure. Privacy is important because it is the core of our sense of individual identity and dignity, as well as the foundation for relationships of trust and friendship. 

American law seeks to protect privacy as a matter of individual liberty, while Jewish law views privacy as central to being created in the image of God (as God is partly revealed and partly hidden, so should we be). Judaism also values privacy as part of our communal identity: We are a holy people that respects boundaries. 

As I describe in some detail in Chapter Two of my book “Love Your Neighbor and Yourself,” these differing approaches to privacy produce different applications of the concern for privacy in the two legal systems, including varying approaches to such issues as abortion, spying on employees, videotaping and photographing, and internet usage. The concern for privacy, though, must be squared against our equally important need for safety, and modern sophisticated technology has made balancing these two concerns much harder than it used to be. 

Rabbi Ari Segal
Shalhevet Head of School

There’s a quote that has become overused. No one is quite sure who said it first, but I love it, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” 

That’s a lot to unpack, but I think the quote is essentially a plea for developing interiority. It is easy to spend your life talking about other people, gossiping about celebrities, talking about the countertops in your neighbor’s kitchen — but such a life leads to shallowness and an emphasis on externality. Great minds leap to focus on the compelling ideas that emerge from the tapestry of our thoughts. How does one develop such a perspective? It may depend on the direction of your sight. 

Bilaam remarks about the Jewish people, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” Rashi explains that this comment referred to the fact that the tents of the Jewish people did not align with one another so they couldn’t peek into one another’s homes. Great nations, like great minds, emerge from a concern not for your neighbor’s life but rather your own inner world. 

Maybe that is why we begin morning prayers with this verse. It is a reminder that focused prayer can only emerge from a focused inner world. If our tents are facing our neighbors, the depth of our inner ideas will be left wanting. To develop a great mind, make sure your tent is facing in the right direction.

Shaindy Jacobson
Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (Jewish Learning Institute)

Entry level. We’ve all been there. Maybe we still are. Perhaps we’ve just begun scaling that never-ending mountain, or blessedly made it to the top! Regardless, it all begins with that opening — that initial portal we each must enter in order to move forward. 

Herein lies the quintessential message of Bilaam’s curse-turned-blessing to the Jewish people. Rashi comments that Bilaam uttered these words in amazement when “he saw that the openings [of their tents] were not lined up one with the other.” Why the focus on their openings? 

Reb Boruch of Mezhbizh quotes the Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs (5:2) when God urges the Jewish people, “Pitchu li petach kechudo shel machat ve’Ani potei’ach lachem petachim shetiheyu agalot nichnasot bo” — “Make a small opening like that of the head of a needle and I will open for you an opening through which caravans can enter.” 

All a Jew needs to do is begin the teshuvah process and God will help lead him or her to greater goals. The opening that a Jew has to make is incomparable to the opening God makes in return. Hence, Bilaam, both in praise and envy, could not refrain from uttering, “You Jews are blessed! Your opening and God’s opening are not ‘aligned’ — equivalent — to each other. All God asks of you is to make a minuscule effort and He responds by opening the vast gates of teshuvah.” 

It all begins at entry level. As Mark Twain famously said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”