Parshat Balak

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Balak. Balak is the name of the king of Moab who became petrified of the Jewish nation, after seeing how they decimated the two most powerful kings, Sichon the king of Emori, and Og the king of Bashan. These two nations were the vanguard for the entire region, and if they could not stand up to the Jewish nation, Moav certainly wouldn’t stand a chance. Balak had to think out of the box if he was going to defeat these people.

Balak sought to figure out the secret sauce of the Jewish people. What gives them the strength to overtake even the most powerful of nations? His research revealed that the secret weapon of the Jewish People is their mouths. This is a reference to the power of prayer, our direct line to Hashem, which saves us from any enemy.

With this discovery, Balak thought he would fight fire with fire, by using the power of the mouth to defeat the Jews, but in the opposite way. He would have the Jewish People cursed by the master of curses, Bilam. Bilam was a non-Jewish prophet who had a sterling reputation. Every curse he ever placed on someone, was completely effective. Once you paid his price, he would curse your enemy, and that would be the end of  him.

Long story short, Balak sent messengers to secure the services of Bilam, to curse the Jewish people. His plan was to beat them at their own game.

Bilam asked Hashem if he may go with Balak’s men, and Hashem told him that he can go but only on one condition. He must be careful to speak only the words Hashem allows him to speak, and nothing else. Bilam told Balak that his cursing abilities may be hindered, but Balak was so desperate, he took him anyway, hoping that somehow Bilam would be able to wrangle out a curse.

In his first attempt to curse the Jewish people, Balak took Bilam to Bamot Baal, a high place from which Bilam could see the edge of the camp of the Jewish people. Bilam had Balak build seven altars upon each of which he sacrificed a bull and a ram. Bilam went off to be isolated so he could receive a prophesy, while Balak stayed with the sacrifices. Bilam returned with blessings for the Jewish people.

Upon hearing the blessings, Balak said to Bilam; “What did you do? I employed you to curse them, and in fact all you did was bless them!”

Bilam responded by saying, “I told you from the onset, I would only be able to say what Hashem lets me say! But take me to a different place, maybe I will be able to see a flaw in them from there and bestow a curse on them from that perspective.

Balak took him to Sdeh Hatzofim, another high place from which they could  see just the smallest edge of the Jewish people. Once again Bilam told Balak to  build seven altars and bring seven bulls and seven rams, and to stay with the sacrifices while I see what Hashem will tell me. Once again Bilam came back with a blessing for the Jewish people.

Bilam had Balak try the seven altars trick one more time, but this time Bilam decided on his own to bless the Jewish people. As he looked out onto the camp of the tents of the Jewish People, he noticed something very interesting. No two doorways faced each other. In the entire camp of literally hundreds of of tents, no two doorways faced each other. Bilam realized this could not be by coincidence. This had to be the result of much thought and planning. And, what was the  reason behind it?

This is when Bilam made the great statement that has actually been incorporated into our daily prayers.

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂראל

How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.



Rashi explains that Bilam realized, that each person carefully positioned his doorway in a different direction than the doorway of his neighbor, so that he should not peek into his neighbor’s tent.

רש”י על במדבר פרק כד פסוק ב

שכן לשבטיו – ראה שאין פתחיהם מכוונין זה כנגד זה שלא יציץ לתוך אהל חבירו:

Harav Mattisyahu Solomon Shlit”a (This is an acronym in Hebrew letters which means “May he live a long and healthy life) makes a remarkable observation. Notice, it doesn’t say “they positioned their doorways such, so that no one else should peek into their tent. Rather it says, “Each person positioned his doorway in way that would prevent he himself from looking into the other person’s tent.” Each person proactively positioned his own tent facing a different direction than the doorway of his neighbor, so as not to even inadvertently look into his neighbor’s tent. This is truly an amazing display of consideration that each person showed for the other. This sensitivity is worthy of the greatest praise.

The question is, how did Bilam know this was their reason. Maybe in fact it was done so that the other person shouldn’t look into his tent? How did Bilam determine it was out of consideration for his neighbor and not out of concern for his own privacy?  What tipped him off?

The answer is that Bilam realized that the only possible way such a thing could happen quickly, peacefully and without argument is if each person had only the best interest of the other person in mind. Since  If each person was interested only in himself, and what he wanted, the camp would not have been set up in a million years.

Ruvain sets up his tent, and then Shimon comes along and sets his tent up with the door facing Ruvains door. Ruvain says to Shimon, “Hey Shimon, would you please change the direction of your door, it is facing my door.” “What’s the problem?” asks Shimon. “Why, you may look into my tent and encroach on my privacy!” responds Ruvain. “What are you talking about? I would never look into your house!” “Nevertheless, Ruvain says, please change the direction of your doorway, it would make me feel better.” Shimon responds, “Look, if you’re so worried about me looking into your tent, change your tent around!” Or Shimon may respond, “Don’t you see, all the other tents around me have their doors facing my tent, so any way I turn, I will be facing someone’s door, and you are a nice guy, so I picked you!”

Such an argument, or something like it, would be likely to happen with every single tent being set up. There would have been hundreds of thousands of interactions (there were approximately 600,000 families) each one a potential altercation between the people. Can you imagine what setting up came should have looked like? How could it possibly happen in such a peaceful way?

There is only one possible answer. Each person was not thinking about his own selfish needs, and what was good for him, rather he was thinking only of the welfare of his fellow. That being the case, there were no issues at all. As the tents went up, each person simply adjusted his own tent so that it did not face the doorway of a neighboring tent. And if one person had no choice but to have his door face the doorway of a neighboring tent, the opposing tent owner would peacefully change the direction of his tent, and so too the next person all the way to the end of the camp. The system was foolproof, and worked every time. Setting up camp took no time at all, and there were never any arguments.

This is the only conclusion Bilam could possibly come to. What an amazing people these Jews are! How could I curse such a beautiful group of people, who are so considerate and sensitive to each other’s needs? These are truly the most blessed people in the world.

In a similar vein, the Talmud tells us there was no more praiseworthy generation of תלמידי חכמים  (Torah Sages) than the generation of Rabbi Yehuda bar Elau-ee. What was so special about his generation? During that time, poverty was so rampant, that six students had to share and cover themselves with one blanket. They couldn’t even afford a blanket for each person.

How was it possible that six students were able to cover themselves with only one blanket?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz Zt”l answers by saying that this was only possible because each student was concerned only with the welfare of the other. When he saw a friend that needed the blanket, he would give it to him. Thus, each student was able to be warm when he needed to be, and they could continue their learning uninterrupted.

This idea of being concerned and sensitive to the needs of others is the secret to the greatest blessing in the world.

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