“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelings, O Israel!”
— Numbers 24:5
This verse is attributed to the soothsayer Bilaam, who was asked by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites. From above the encampment, Bilaam looks down and blesses them instead. In a commentary on this verse, Rashi notes that the openings of the tents do not face each other, but rather offer a modicum of privacy; they show that the Israelites value modesty.1
According to Jewish tradition, there are different rules that govern what happens in private and in public. Crimes and offenses are viewed and punished differently depending on whether they are committed in one’s home or in public view. For example, the punishment for breaking Shabbat is more severe when it’s done in full public view because it seems as though the perpetrator is flaunting his or her violations for everyone to see.
In contrast, earlier in the Torah, we are told that Abraham and Sarah were so intent on welcoming people into their home that they would keep their tent open on all sides. They knew what it meant to share their lives with others. But they did not have people looking into their tents; we are told that Abraham and Sarah were paragons of modesty.
Our verse and Rashi’s commentary on it reinforce the benefits of conducting our lives with modesty and humility. Our lives are not meant to be on full display; the intimate moments we share with loved ones are more than just fodder for a clever post or tweet. In this age of Twitter, reality television, and the “if you’ve got it flaunt it” mantra, we should remember that the quiet moments we share with our loved ones are the true currency of our lives. — Ben Goldstein
What strikes me about this passage and Ben Goldstein’s commentary is the context of the story. Initially, Balak’s request to Bilaam is to curse the Israelites. Instead, once Bilaam opens his mouth to speak, a beautiful blessing emerges. Sometimes, the line between blessing and curse, the correct and incorrect path, is not as clear as it may initially seem. Efforts at upholding individual freedom can come at the expense of the common good. Calls for communal cohesion can lead to silencing or marginalizing dissenting voices. A proper emphasis on privacy can sometimes be a refuge for family dysfunction.
As a woman, I have seen some misuse the value of modesty as a way to focus exclusively on and shame women who fail to conform to conventional concepts of gender roles. Humility may be the key and core value that can help us to move forward despite this complexity. If a leader is humble enough to admit that the proper path isn’t always clear, it creates an opportunity to expand the number of voices and perspectives on a given situation. This leads to smarter and wiser decisions, which is a true blessing for the community.
— Stosh Cotler
This biblical verse describes an almost cinematic drama. Bilaam, a foreign sorcerer, sets out to curse the Israelites, but when he positions himself above their camp and looks down at the dusty, chaotic swell of humanity beneath him, he finds himself unable to curse the Israelites. He praises them instead, saying: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”
As Rabbi Ben Goldstein comments on Rashi’s teaching, Bilaam is impressed that the Israelites have organized their dwellings in a way that honors both the public and private realms that comprise healthy communal living. The arresting subtlety of this observation has made me think about my own synagogue community more than once.
But this year, I thank Rabbi Jonathan Slater for introducing me to the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein. He teaches that what so impressed Bilaam as he looked down at the Israelite camp were the Israelites’ fellowship and their affection for one another.
In my own community, respect for privacy is not a source of concern; so many of us have already fortified ourselves behind the doors of our suburban homes. But what we aspire to do in our synagogue is to create a public space in which everyone who enters feels respected and safe. In this way, we can extend ourselves to others and nurture the warmth and affinity that, according to Epstein, Bilaam saw when he looked down at the Israelites.
— Eric Rosin
Public and private spaces and faces are a conundrum for Judaism’s most public Jews: the clergy. I imagine that Rabbi Ben Goldstein experiences this tension; perhaps it lurks in the background of his commentary. What is one to do when his or her life is indeed on public display?
His use of the word “currency” is curious. I help Jewish professionals to negotiate their employment contracts, and compensation is not the only currency that comes up. It is sometimes as if a rabbi or cantor’s private life is part of the currency. Synagogue members may be disappointed that their spiritual leaders’ families are not more involved in the community, or that a rabbi or cantor is too hard to get to “know.” This can actually impact contract negotiations.
Not only congregants forget about the importance of quiet, private moments. Rabbis, too, can forget self care as they care for a whole community with a wide range of needs. Let’s remember Goldstein’s words and (without being too intrusive) make space for our leaders to rest.
— Martha Hausman
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