Parshat Balak

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Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov, mishke’notecha Yisrael –
Your tents are so good, O Jacob, (and) your dwellings, O Israel!

A handful of people have trampled upon others in grief and despair.
They have shamed themselves, destroyed a newspaper and damaged
trust in the free press.  It will be a long time before that trust is regained
The Times, UK


Parshat Balak is a fascinating parsha, filled with incantations and imprecations, kings, prophets, angels and donkeys. The main story, which gives the Parsha its name, is Moabite King Balak’s hatred of the Jewish nation. This leads to his hiring of Balaam the Prophet to use his considerable power to curse the Jewish nation.

Balaam, considered to be the greatest gentile prophet who ever lived, refused to travel to Moab without G-d’s permission. This was eventually granted, with the proviso that Balaam would only utter the words G-d would give him.

Following an eventful trip during which Balaam and his donkey have a slight falling out, he is joyfully welcomed to Moab by King Balak and his entourage. Ah, time to curse the Jews, a once popular practise not completely extinct. They ascend to a lofty lookout with a good view of the Israelite camp and begin to prepare. Seven altars are built, each graced with a bull and a ram and Balaam is called upon to perform. The Moabites hope that his powerful imprecations will destroy the Jewish people, or at the very least cause them to flee the region.

Yet when Balaam finally speaks, the poetic sentences he declaims are not curses, but blessings:

Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east [saying], “Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.” [Yet] how can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?

As Balaam had told Balak and his representatives, he could only say the words G-d wanted him to – and although he desired to curse the Jews, he had no choice in the matter. They try this process three times, and each time Balaam pours blessings upon the Bnei Yisrael, as Balak gets more and more angry. After the third time he can no longer contain his fury:

I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. Now hurry back to your place. I said I would honour you greatly, but the L-rd has deprived you of honour.

Balaam heads off home, Balak’s plan falls apart, and the Jewish people remain blissfully oblivious to what might have befallen them.

Yet the words G-d placed in Balaam’s mouth are not lost to history, as they are recorded verbatim in the Torah, and though the man himself was wicked, the beautiful blessings he spoke are not. Many of the poetic verses he uttered are well known, none more so than the sentence we say at the beginning of our daily morning prayers:

מַה טּבוּ אהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקב מִשְׁכְּנתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

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

The Sages’ commentary on this verse is interesting. They explain that Balaam was praising something specific about the arrangement of the Israelite campsite – that the doorways of the individual tents were not directly facing one another, thus providing a basic level of privacy for the occupants. The Mishna derives a halacha (law) from this that houses in a courtyard should not be built with doorways or windows directly facing one another. (A residence on a public street which has passersby anyway does not have this halacha)

There are many Jewish laws still today which deal with the protection of personal privacy, as there are enshrined in civil law too. The breach of someone’s privacy or the breaking of a confidence is not only against the halacha, it can often be more painful than even a physical attack.

A prime example of this has caused the collapse this week of a British tabloid which has been published for the last 168 years. A newspaper based on sleaze and gossip and constantly fighting defamation cases and court actions, all red lines were finally crossed when it was discovered to have hired detectives to tap into private phone lines and eavesdrop on calls and voicemail. Beginning with the British Royal Family this eavesdropping was tolerated by a public who (wrongly) feel that celebrities have no right to any privacy, but when the invasion of privacy extended to the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl (even deleting some of her messages) everyone was rightly outraged. With allegations of up to 7,000 other cases, including grieving families of those killed in terror attacks or on duty with the Armed Forces the game was up, and the paper closes this Sunday.

Protecting others’ privacy is so very important. The embarrassment of another person in public is considered by Judaism to be a form of murder, and maybe, just maybe the press and paparazzi who make their livings off others’ discomfort will take a lesson from Balaam in this week’s Torah reading: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! The protection of modesty and privacy is something that G-d rates so very highly.

May we merit to the blessing in Balaam’s penultimate parable: I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon.  A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel – referring to the arrival of the Mashiach,  speedily in our days – and let the paparazzi have something worthwhile to photograph.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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