Balak 5779. Are we Losing our Privacy?

Bilaam's final blessing to the Jewish people opens with the famous line:

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel!

What did Bilaam see? What is it about the tents and dwellings of Israel that are so good?

Option 1: The Hebrew "Ohel" and "Mishkan" are epithets for the Tabernacle. In that case, what Bilaam might be praising is the sanctuary at the heart of the Israelite camp.

But here we have a problem. There is only a single Mishkan or sanctuary, but Bilaam speaks in the plural!

We might suggest two solutions:

1. It refers to Batei Midrash and Batei Knesset (Seforno, Talmud Sanhedrin 105b) and this may form the basis of the tradition (Mahzor Vitry) to recite this verse upon entry to the Beit Knesset.

2. It might refer to the series of Tbernacle, first and second Temple (Rashi, Zror HaMor). As such Bilaam is seeing the rise and destruction of Temples, but God will never allow the destruction of the Temple to end the relationship between God and Israel, and there will always be an anticipation of its rebuilding.

But let us examine a second option suggested by Rashi:

Option 2. Rashi will suggest that the tents and dwellings are actually the tents of the Jewish people as indicated by the previous verse: "Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him." But what is so special about their encampment?

"HOW GOODLY ARE THY TENTS — He said this because he saw that the entrances of their tents were not exactly facing each other (Bava Batra 60a)."

For Rashi, the special aspect of the camp is that people have regard for each others' privacy. The tent openings do not face each other. This way, everybody gets a modicum of privacy (in a tent-city where, we might imagine, privacy comes at a premium.). This idea comes from Bava Batra which speaks about dense urban neighborhoods, and rules that: "If a person build a new window opposite his neighbor, whether it is higher or lower than them or level with them, it may not be within four cubits of his neighbor's window."(2:4)

So, let's discuss this:

  • What do YOU think Bilaam noticed?

  • Was it religious institutions, or possibly the unusual layout of the Israelite camp?

  • What would have been more novel to Bilaam, coming from the Near Eastern cultures of the region?

  • Why do you think that Rashi focused on the issue of privacy? Is this an important aspect of our civilization?

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  • Today, many people worry that in an internet age we have surrendered our privacy. What has changed today?

  • Privacy is a basic human right:

United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, Article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”


Why is that? Why is privacy such a fundamental right?

  • Would you be happy if someone uploaded an embarrassing picture of you? Why?

  • When have you seen people invading or disrespecting other people's privacy online?

  • When is privacy important? When is it not?

Shabbat Shalom!

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