Balak: Judaism flourishes in tents of history, home

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Numbers 22:2-25:9

Micah 5:6-6:8

What does it mean to curse someone? I think it means to predict the person's downfall, but not only that. It must also mean to wish for that outcome and even, to the extent that words can have this magical effect, to bring it about.

In today's Torah reading Balak, the king of Moab, hires the great Balaam — magician, sorcerer, prophet extraordinaire — to curse the Children of Israel. Balak evidently believes in the power of curses. He wants more out of this curse than a mere prediction. He pays top dollar, I assume, because he wants Balaam's words to help bring about Israel's ruin.

After sufficient negotiation, Balaam accepts the commission. But at the crucial moment as he looks out over the camp of Israel, Balaam discovers that he cannot issue the curse. He cannot even predict Israel's downfall.

On the contrary, as he looks into the future, he sees Israel enduring and continuing to endure while all other contemporary peoples crumble and decay. So Balaam's declarations come out sounding more like blessings than like curses.

As he looks out over the camp, what Balaam sees indicates Israel's durability, so he pre-empts his curse. Perhaps he is indicating this in the beginning of his most famous declaration: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your habitations, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

The tents of Israel, then, guarantee our ability to thrive. Which tents? The sanctuary of the desert encampment of Israel was called the "Tent of Meeting." So, logically enough, Midrash Tanhuma interprets Balaam's prophecy as referring specifically to the Tent of Meeting, which stood before him, and also to the future tents, the sanctuaries at Shiloh and Jerusalem.

As long as Jews have the holy place of sacrifice, we endure. Even the very destruction of the Temple serves as atonement for Israel. The holy places of holy encounter, current or remembered, guarantee Israel's eternity.

Rabbi Yohannan argues that the tents and habitations refer not to the ancient Temple, but to contemporary "houses of study and synagogues" (Talmud Sanhedrin 105b; so too Targum Yonatan). Throughout the centuries, we Jews have kept our culture vivacious in the synagogues where we pray and also in the halls where we study. The force that saps the strength of peoples in the course of time does not weaken a Jewish community where people pray together and study together. Prayer and study guarantee Israel's eternity.

These explanations seem somewhat fanciful compared with the straightforward rendering offered by Rashi. The tents and habitations mean homes and communities. The people of Israel stay alive because enough members of each generation learn, at home, to take their place among the people.

According to this interpretation, no public institution so impresses Balaam with the people of Israel's staying power as the private institution of the family. We typically learn our first commitments and loyalties at home, and in our neighborhood. Strong families and communities guarantee Israel's eternity.

If Balaam had looked at today's Jews instead of at the Israelites' encampment in the Sinai Desert, I wonder what our lives would have told him about the eternity of Israel. I wonder what stamina we express in our "tents," our memory of the holy encounter, our synagogues and academies, our homes and communities.

And if we wish to strengthen our stamina, to increase our contribution to the durability of Israel, I wonder which tent we need most to improve.

We could cultivate the tent of the Midrash Tanhuma: the memory of the holy encounter. Or we could focus on that of Yohannan: our synagogues and study-houses. We could cultivate that of Rashi: our families and communities.

Which seems most important to you?