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Balak 5779: Good Tents, Good Neighbors

07/23/2019 04:06:54 PM


In our Torah portion this week, Balak, we read of the blessings conveyed by the prophet Balaam. Among the poetic verses with which he blesses Israel is the line mah tovu ohalecha ya'akov, mishkanotecha yisrael: How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel. This line eventually was incorporated into the prayer book, to be said upon entering a synagogue. But tonight I want to focus on this line in the context of Balaam's blessing. Of all the things about Israel he might have praised, why the tents? And why refer to the people by the name of their ancestor Jacob? To answer these questions, let us turn to another place in the Torah that mentions Jacob and tents. When Jacob and his twin brother Esau are born, the Torah tells us something of their character: “And the lads grew up, and Esau was a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man, a dweller in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In contrast to his outdoorsy brother, Jacob is associated with tents, with the domestic sphere. He is also described as “tam,” which I just translated as simple, but can also have the sense of integrity or innocence. Suggesting that Jacob is a man of integrity or innocence is a bit ironic, given the story that follows. As you will recall, first Jacob barters his brother's birthright for a bowl of soup. Then he colludes with his mother to deceive his father into giving him his blessing. The whole story creates a picture of a dysfunctional family. It depicts relatives deeply enmeshed in each other's business, trying to out-maneuver each other through eavesdropping, withholding information, and outright trickery. In this story, Jacob's dwelling in tents draws him in to the negative family dynamics that eventually force him to flee for his life. Compare this to the tents that Balaam observed, of the whole people Israel, Jacob's descendants, “encamped tribe by tribe,” as the Torah says, in the steppes of Moab, preparing to enter the promised land. A common rabbinic interpretation of Balaam's praise of their tents is that the people's tents were so arranged that one family could not peer in to another's tent. This way of arranging the tents allowed the people to maintain a sense of modesty, of private things being kept private. The people learned from their ancestor Jacob: that dwelling in close proximity to family and kin, with all its benefits, nonetheless requires boundaries. As much as the people cared for one another, in order to function as a cohesive group, one capable of settling the Promised Land, they needed to respect each other's privacy. Like their ancestor Jacob, they dwelled in tents, but found an improved way to do so. Like Jacob and his family, like our ancestors on the cusp of the Promised Land, we too live in close community, deeply connected with the lives of those around us. This happens through institutions like synagogues and schools, and through organic neighborly relationships. There are obviously many benefits to such a strong sense of community. But such close community comes with the risk that gossip, bullying, and prying into our neighbors' affairs can undermine those relationships, just as they did in Jacob's family. The image of the people encamped in such a praiseworthy way reminds us of the need to respect boundaries with our neighbors, friends, and fellow community members. We have to resist the urge to gossip. We have to be present and helpful for our friends, without interfering in their lives in an unwelcome way. It is so wonderful to be here together tonight, as two congregations and more coming together in celebration of Shabbat. This service reminds us of the great blessings that community can bring. May we always be mindful, as were our ancestors, of maintaining the boundaries that enable such community to thrive. Shabbat Shalom.
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