SALT - Tuesday, 6 Tammuz 5779 - July 9, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            When Bilam made his third unsuccessful attempt to curse Benei Yisrael, he saw the nation “shokhein li-shvatav” – “dwelling by its tribes” (24:2).  The Gemara (Bava Batra 60a), as Rashi cites, famously explains this to mean that Bilam took note of the way Benei Yisrael’s tents were arranged – in such a manner that the entrances did not face one another (“she-ein pitcheihem mekhuvanin zeh ke-negged zeh”).  Upon seeing how Benei Yisrael made a point of ensuring that they would not be able to look inside each other’s tents, Bilam was inspired to bless them, instead of curse them.
            The Gemara’s comment is commonly understood as a source for the importance of protecting other people’s privacy, both in the narrow, literal sense of not peering into people’s homes, and more generally, avoiding preoccupation with people’s private affairs.  We are to conduct our lives in such a manner that we do not “face” other people’s “tents” – that we are not constantly peering or inquiring into others’ personal lives, and instead direct our attention towards our own “tents,” making sure we are living our lives properly.
            However, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in Ma’or Va-shemesh, adds a different explanation, suggesting that Chazal speak here of the importance of traveling through one’s own “entrance,” and charting one’s own individual path.  What impressed Bilam, the Ma’or Va-shemesh explains, was that the people did not look at each other’s conduct as exact models for how they themselves were to act.  Benei Yisrael recognized that not everybody’s religious life is supposed to be identical to everyone else’s, that within the limits of Torah thought and practice, there is room for different “tents.”  If we look at what others do as the precise model that we must follow, then we are betraying our individuality and our individual strengths and potential.  We become worthy of blessing when we all encamp together around the Mishkan, like Benei Yisrael in the desert, devoting our lives to the Torah, with each of us focusing on his or her “tent” – his or her unique approach, rather than assuming that we must all conduct ourselves in precisely the same manner.