Our parasha, Balak, contains one of the most famous pesukim in the Torah: “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael!” (Bamidbar 24:5). Basing himself on Bava Batra 60a, Rashi’s commentary explains that the phrase, “how goodly are your tents” refers to the modesty of the fledgling Jewish nation: “For he (Bilam) saw that the entrances [of the tents] were not facing each other.”
The midrash initially cites the explanation of the Talmud and Rashi, and then offers an additional intriguing interpretation: “‘How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov’ — in the merit of Yaakov having sat in them, as the text states: ‘And Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.’ (Bereishit 25:27). Because of this, the Jewish people merited to dwell in tents in the desert.”
Why does the midrash stress the merit of Yaakov having sat in tents? Clearly, Yaakov was not the only person of his day to dwell in tents, for this, after all, was the rule within his historical and cultural context.
Both the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi, therefore, teach us that these were not standard tents, but rather, “the tents of Shem and Ever.” As we know from related midrashic sources, Shem and Ever had the first “yeshiva,” wherein the knowledge of Hashem’s omnipotence, justice and righteousness formed the essence of the curriculum.
The midrash’s thesis, therefore, may now be understood:
Based upon “the merit of Yaakov having sat in them [the tents of Shem and Ever] … the Jewish people merited to dwell in tents in the desert.”
I believe another section of the Midrash Aggadah sheds light upon the connection between the two parts of this statement.
“Yaakov was chosen by the Holy One, blessed be He, as the text states: ‘But you, Israel My servant, Yaakov whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me’ (Yeshayahu 41:8). In addition it is written, ‘For G-d chose Yaakov for Himself, Israel for His treasure’ (Tehillim 135:4).
Hashem did not bring him (Yaakov) close, rather, he brought himself close to the Almighty, as the text states: ‘And Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents.’”
Two complementary ideas emerge from this passage: namely, Hashem chose Yaakov, and Yaakov chose Hashem. Like his grandfather Avraham, Yaakov was a seeker who would not rest until he had thoroughly explored and developed his relationship with the Master of the Universe. Little wonder, then, that Yaakov is referred to in Rabbinic literature as the bachir ha’Avot (the Chosen One of the Patriarchs).
We can now understand why the Jewish people merited to dwell in tents during their 40-year sojourn in the desolate wasteland of the Sinai Desert. I believe it is because Yaakov, the founder of the Jewish people, whose second name, “Yisrael,” is the crown of our nation, reached out to the Almighty in order to know Him to the fullest extent that finite human nature would allow. This is congruent with a celebrated pasuk in Mishle: “Know Him in all your ways, and He will direct your paths” (3:6).
Like Yaakov Avinu, the entire Jewish people are chosen by Hashem: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6). With Hashem’s help, may each of us, in our own unique way, strive to emulate Yaakov and reach out to Hashem, so that we, too, may dwell in the tents of Torah and grow each day in our knowledge and love of the Almighty.