from the heart of jerusalem

Jewish people have a different set of priorities


I remember, as a high school student, hearing our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, relate one of the questions he used to ask when interviewing prospective rebbeim for our high school.

Amidst a flurry of questions designed to test their knowledge of halachah and Talmud, he would ask them what they would do (and what the halachic requirement would be), if after ordering an electric shaver, they were accidentally sent two shavers. Many young rabbis would respond by delving into the question of whether, once the company sent the extra shaver, they were giving it to you, and whether the laws of theft applied equally to non-Jews.

Needless to say, he was only interested in hiring as teachers those who responded, without thinking, that they would send it back.

Where is the balance between our quest to develop a deeper relationship with G-d on the one hand, and the importance of ethical excellence on the other? How can we ensure, not only in ourselves but in our children and students, that spiritual growth does not come at the expense of simple mentschlechkeit, the value of being a good person?

This week’s portion, Balak, gives us some valuable insight regarding this question, from a most unlikely source: Ma Tovu, traditionally recited as one enters the synagogue.

“Ma tovu’ O’halecha Yaakov, Mishke’no’techa Yisrael (How goodly are your tents, oh Yaakov; and your dwelling places, oh Israel).”

While six-year-olds in Hebrew school will likely be able to sing the opening words of the first stanza, most people don’t realize the source of these beautiful verses: Three thousand years ago they were recited by a non-Jewish prophet who was bent on cursing the Jewish people and seeing their destruction, but who G-d caused to bless and praise them instead.

• • •

Fresh from its successes on the battlefield against the armies of Og and the Amorites, the Jewish people are about to encounter a perhaps even more sinister challenge.

Balak, king of Moab, realizes that the G-d of the Jews is too strong, and so he will never be able to defeat the Jewish people on the battlefield. So he approaches Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet who, after initial hesitation, agrees to climb the mountain overlooking the Jewish camp and curse the Jewish people in the name of their own G-d. Balak reasons that if this people, blessed by G-d, becomes cursed by G-d, all their seemingly magical powers will disappear, and the Moabite armies will make short work of them.

At first, G-d does not want to let Bilaam go, but eventually acquiesces, on condition that he will only say what G-d tells him to say.

Balaam travels to the mountain range of Emor, intent on cursing the Jewish people, but G-d performs a miracle and instead, beautiful words of blessing and praise pour forth, and the Jewish people’s destiny as a blessed nation is sealed forever. 

Rashi suggests that there was something Balaam saw that caused him to bless the Jewish people. In other words, it wasn’t that G-d just spoke through Balaam’s vocal chords, because then it wouldn’t have been Balaam blessing the Jewish people, it would have been G-d. Rather, Balaam saw something that actually caused him to want to bless the Jewish people.

What was it that caused even an evil prophet like Bilaam, motivated by bribery (Balak was willing to pay a huge sum for his curse), to want to bless the Jews? Rashi relates that Bilaam noticed that amongst all the Jewish tents, there was not one single tent opening that faced another tent opening. In other words, no one’s tent opening looked into anyone else’s.

Modesty and valuing someone else’s privacy is important, to be sure, but is this what caused Balaam to bless us? And is this so important that it becomes the theme of the beginning of our prayers every day? 

• • •

The Torah tells us there were approximately 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 (the census for the army) who left Egypt. Depending on the size of the Jewish family then, and adding the people who were younger or older than army age, that means there were hundreds of thousands of tents! How could Bilaam look at every tent, and be able to say that there was not a single tent that faced another’s opening?

What is the easiest way to ensure that there is not one tent-opening facing another? Just have them all facing the same way. In other words, Balaam saw rows and rows of tents all facing the same direction, in rows that must have stretched on for miles. Which means they had to have a system when they encamped.

This must have been a new phenomenon, to have so impressed Balaam; that an army, indeed an entire nation took the time to set up their tents facing a particular direction, to such an extent that it was visible to the naked eye from a distant mountaintop.

And perhaps this is why we recite these verses when we enter our synagogues, because 3,000 years ago, a people entered the scene with a different set of priorities. And whenever they laid camp, they actually had a system designed to ensure that no one person’s privacy was compromised at the expense of another.

It is easy, when entering shul (synagogue) to become so focused on the awesome challenge of developing our relationship with G-d, that we forget the person sitting right next to us. And it is equally understandable, with all the prayers in our hearts for ourselves and our loved ones, to forget what it is really all about. But a careful look at the beginning of the Jewish prayer book will make abundantly clear Judaism’s focus on our relationships with our fellow human beings.

The Talmud tells us that the second Temple was destroyed through blind, wanton hatred, or sinat chinam. It is difficult to understand how any hatred can ever be chinam, which seems to mean “for no reason at all.”

The Netziv suggests that this wanton hatred refers to disliking or even detesting someone because their views are different. This becomes critical because Rav Kook suggests that if the Temple was destroyed through sinat chinam then it will only be rebuilt through ahavat chinam, or wanton, baseless love. This may mean that the secret to a better world is simply learning to see the common ground and the beauty in someone else’s viewpoint, however different it may be from our own.

And so it is Balaam, the most unlikely of sources, a non-Jew who seems to detest all that we stand for, who is given the opportunity to see things in an entirely different way.

And maybe this is why we do not traditionally recite the Ma Tovu at home in private prayer, but rather when we enter the synagogue and join the community.

The Torah does not really tell us where we can find G- d, but it does tell us that every human being is created in the image of G-d. Allegorically, there is a little piece of G-d inside every human being — Jew or Muslim, Christian or Buddhist, friend or foe. And if we cannot see the little piece of G-d inside the person standing next to us, we will have a hard time finding G-d anywhere.