SALT - Tuesday, 6 Tammuz 5776 - July 12, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Before Bilam made his final attempt to place a curse upon Benei Yisrael, he looked out onto the nation and saw them “residing according to their tribes” (“shokhein li-shvatav”), whereupon “the spirit of God” rested upon him, inspiring him to bless them (24:2).  Bilam then proceeded to proclaim the most famous of his blessings: “Ma tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael” – “How good are your tents, of Yaakov; your residences, O Israel!”

            The Gemara, in a famous passage in Masekhet Bava Batra (60a) cited by Rashi, comments that Bilam was impressed when he noticed “she-ein pitcheihen mekhuvanin zeh ke-neged zeh" – the entrances to Benei Yisrael’s tents were not positioned opposite each other.  The plain meaning of this remark is that the people were sensitive to the importance of privacy, and thus they arranged their tents in a manner that would ensure that families would be unable to see one another’s personal affairs.

            Rav Asher of Ropshitz (cited in Eser Tzachtzachot, p. 103) suggested a deeper explanation of the Gemara’s remark.  He explained that all righteous people have their own individual “entrance” through which they seek to develop their relationship with God.  While we all follow the same Torah and are bound by the same laws, the Torah allows room for diverse areas of focus and approaches.  Rav Asher thus suggested that the Gemara speaks here of the fact that Benei Yisrael’s “entrances” to avodat Hashem were not all identical.  They pitched their “tents” together, yet there was a degree of diversity in their approaches.  And thus Bilam was inspired to praise the variety of “tents” and “residences” of Am Yisrael.

            This novel, Chassidic reading of the text is not necessarily at odds with the plain meaning.  Chazal describe how Benei Yisrael lived with their eyes focused primarily on their own “tents,” on their own affairs, without peering into the lives of others.  When we live properly, we direct our eyes towards ourselves and our families, trying to fulfill God’s will to the best of our abilities, without focusing our attention on other people’s affairs.  Of course, our responsibilities include offering assistance and guidance to others when the need arises, but our attention should be directed mainly to our “own” tents, rather than to the lives of others.  And this includes charting a path in avodat Hashem that suits our individual personalities, skills and talents, rather than trying to mimic others.  Certainly, we can and must gain inspiration and guidance from worthy role models whose qualities should be emulated, but only as part of our effort to maximize our own individual potential and to utilize our unique, God-given skills for the right purposes.  Even as we occasionally glance at other people’s “tents” to learn from their example, ultimately, we need to ensure to enter through our own individual “entrance,” and follow the path that is most suitable for the unique role that God has assigned each and every one of us.