Balak | "How Goodly are Your Tents, Yaakov"
Summarized by Dov Karoll
How goodly are your tents, Ya'akov; your dwellings, Yisrael. Like the winding brooks, like gardens beside a river; like aloes planted by God, like cedar trees beside the water. He shall pour water out of his buckets, [providing his] seed with abundant water; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God who brought him out of Egypt is like the horns of a wild ox for him; He/he (see below) shall devour His/his enemy nations, crush their bones, and pierce them with arrows. He crouches, lays down like a lion; like a great lion, who dares rouse him? Blessed is he that blesses you, and cursed is he that curses you. (Bemidbar 24:5-9)
The opening verse does not explicate the type of "tents" discussed. The Gemara (Bava Batra 60a) explains that Bil'am saw "that the openings of their [residential] tents were not aligned one opposite the other," which led him to the conclusion that the Jewish people "are worthy that the Divine Presence rest upon them." This interpretation highlights the aspect of tzeni'ut, of modesty and privacy, within the camp.
The next verse describes the conditions under which the people maintained "goodly tents:" "Like the winding brooks, like gardens beside a river; like aloes planted by God, like cedar trees beside the water." This is a description of a peaceful, serene existence. Thus, if we would take these two verses alone, we would conclude that the blessing is for the Jewish people to maintain the sanctity of the camp in times of peace.
However, the subsequent verses present a different picture, set a different tone. In the next verse (7), the imagery changes from "cedar trees beside the water" to "providing abundant water."
There is a dispute among the commentators about the verse following that: "God who brought him out of Egypt is like the horns of a wild ox for him; He/he shall devour His/his enemy nations, crush their bones, and pierce them with arrows." Rashi explains that the whole verse is talking about God: He Who took them out of Egypt will destroy their enemies. Seforno explains that the second half of the verse refers to the Jewish people in the end of days. Ibn Ezra explains that the verse speaks of the Jewish people having been empowered by God to destroy the kings of Canaan.
Even those who claim that verse 8 refers to God, or to the far-off future, agree that verse 9 refers to the Jewish people in a real sense. "He crouches, lays down like a lion; like a great lion, who dares rouse him?"
If we take these descriptions into account, it seems that the blessing of "How goodly are your tents" is being applied to the Jewish camp, not only as it exists in time of peace. Rather, even when the Jewish people are forced to fight against their enemies, and their activities move them into the realm of attack and destruction, tearing their enemies to bits, "crushing their bones," they still maintain the sanctity of the Jewish camp.
It is one thing, and not a simple one, to maintain an environment of sanctity and modesty when living at home. The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 2:4) describes the encampment of the Jewish people in the desert "ki-mecholat ha-machanayim, like the dance of the camps" (Shir ha-Shirim 7:1). The splendor and glory of the camp and its arrangement was great in its appearance. This was one challenge, and success, of the Jewish people in the desert.
That being said, maintaining a standard of "How goodly are your tents" while in a state of battle is a task of an entirely different nature. In the context of war, people often lose sight of the values they strive to maintain under other conditions. They justify to themselves that the standards of morality binding upon civilians are not binding upon them.
It is a much more serious challenge, and a much more impressive feat, to be able to say both things about the same camp, the same people. How great, then, is the blessing in which the encampment of the Jewish people in the desert is described by the phrase, "How goodly are your tents," regarding both the tents of residence and the tents of war.
This sanctity while at war is also an application of the principle of imitatio Dei, "And you shall walk in His ways" (Devarim 28:9), for one of the many descriptions of God in the Torah is "God is a warrior; God is His name" (Shemot 15:3).
This message is important in all generations, yet for thousands of years it was not fully applicable in practice. While Jews, wherever they may have been, recognized the importance of acting appropriately when conquering enemies, it was not an experience that they encountered in their actual existence.
In our generation, this notion takes on special significance. We need to maintain this level of sanctity, of "goodliness," both in our homes and in our camps. Even when we need to take up the implements of Esav, the tools of war, we must be vigilant in maintaining the sanctity of "How goodly are your tents, Ya'akov."
[This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Balak 5762 (2002).]
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