Baalam’s Tents

Balak By :  Lilly Kaufman JTS Alum (Rabbinical School, Cantorial School) Posted On Jul 22, 2016 / 5776 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective

Tell me, where can I go today to see a deeply good community? How will I know it when I see it? Where can I go today and exclaim, Mah tovu?

When a comic villain blesses, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, a rabbi imagines:

Balaam saw that the tent openings of the Israelites do not face each other; rather each opening was behind the next one, so that no one would look in the house of his friend. (BT Bava Batra 60a)

Orienting your tent opening away from your neighbor’s tent opening is a communal expression of modesty. Spread out before the foolish prophet Balaam was the invisible fabric of civic values that allows a law-abiding society to function: mutual respect, expressed with intentionality and consideration for others.

This fool may have thought he saw civic order, mistaking form for content. But order alone is not thrilling. An ethic and organizing principle of human affairs that succeeds in establishing active mutual respect among citizens: that is quietly, decently thrilling.

Generations earlier, the first Israelite tent was the symbol of energetic hesed (kindness)—of Abraham’s outgoing generosity toward three strangers. In Balaam’s day, the tent is transformed. It acquires a nearly opposite social value, a less popular one: self-restraint or modesty. Generosity, giving away; modesty, holding back.

What we give away and what we hold back of our love, our outrage, our time, our effort, our attention, and our possessions is of great consequence. It is the exercise of human will from toddlerhood. To share love easily, yet to limit one’s undesirable impact on others, constitutes a mature goodness that is vibrantly clear.

It was clear to a rabbi in the Talmud, who looked out at a good community across generations through the eyes of a darned fool in the Bible. He elevated the false prophet’s involuntary blessing, his mere splendid beauty, into a statement of moral significance.

Tell me, where on earth can I go today to see a deeply good community in action, one characterized by restraint and generosity; by consideration for one’s neighbor? Where can I go today and exclaim, Mah tovu?