Bilaam’s Tear

The best-known posuk of Parshas Balak is the praise and blessing Bilaam gave to the Jewish home. “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisroel.” Chazal say that eventually all the curses Bilaam, the one-eyed soothsayer, gave to the Jews were fulfilled except for this pasuk which will always be a blessing. (Sanhedrin 105b). It seems that even Bilaam did not really mean to curse the Jewish home. He was genuinely impressed. But what was it about the Jewish home which impressed him so much? Was it their sanctity and purity? What would Bilaam, who was famously ‘married’ to his donkey, know about sanctity and purity? Rashi says that he noticed that the entrances of their tents were not opposite each other. But was this unique? Non-Jews also want privacy. “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” is an English proverb. What impressed Bilaam so much?

Some suggest that not having entrances opposite each other indicates a more significant aspect of Jewish life than a desire for privacy. We do not look at our neighbor to decide what we should be doing with our lives. We are part of a grand orchestra, each of us playing our own instrument to create beautiful harmony, as we read in the final chapter of Tehilim, “Some praise Him with the blast of the shofar, some with the lyre and harp. Some praise Him with a drum and dancing, some with the organ and flute. Some praise Him with clanging cymbals, some with resonant trumpets.” We are all in different situations; we all have different strengths. For each of us to succeed in our mission we need to focus on what we have to do, not what our neighbor has to do. Bilaam thought that everyone’s purpose is the same, that everyone is in the same rat race pursuing money, power and honour. There is only one winner. Maybe this is what impressed him about the Jewish home.

Another implication of the entrances of their tents not being opposite each other which might have impressed Bilaam was that the people did not check what possessions their neighbor had in order to be desirous of acquiring the same thing. The Jews are careful not to covet, in the words of the posuk, “the wife of his neighbor, his man-servant, his maid-servant, his ox or his donkey or anything which belongs to his neighbour.” Even Bilaam would have appreciated the damage that jealousy causes to a person. You are never happy with what you have. You buy what you cannot afford. Your nights are spent imagining how your life would be so much more enjoyable if you had what your neighbor had. Your days are spent working ‘like a dog’ to be able to buy a similar thing. When you finally acquire it you find out that another neighbor has a newer model and the cycle of jealousy begins again. “The Jews must enjoy life much more than me,” Bilaam would have mused.

Other aspects of a Jewish home would have impressed him. For instance, their observance of Shabbos, Hashem’s gift to the Jewish People. We may not appreciate Shabbos fully if we live in the Western world with its concept of a week-end. If they do not keep Saturday as special maybe they keep Sunday or even Friday. They do this because of Jewish influence. When the Torah was given, everybody worked non-stop. There was no concept of a Sabbath and no reason to mark the end of the week. A month or a year has some astronomical significance but not a week. This is still the case in some parts of the world. When Bilaam saw that the Jewish people worked for six days, even if that only involved going out to find the mon, but rested on the seventh day, this was an eye-opener. “What a good idea,” he must have thought. To work non-stop, day after day is soul-destroying. Without Shabbos, we become machines. Work becomes our master. Deadlines and customers rule us. When we say to an insistent customer on Friday afternoon, “We’ll see to it next week. Shabbos is coming in and there’s nothing to talk about,” we are in charge. We have regained our humanity. Bilaam could not have appreciated the spiritual aspects of Shabbos, reconnecting with Hashem, davening, learning. But he might have appreciated a chance to be a man rather than a machine. It is not for nothing that we say in Shabbos davening, “Those who experience Shabbos have merited life. Those who love her words have chosen greatness and honour. ”

On the subject of honour, Bilaam might have noticed how members of a Jewish family show each other honour. A Jewish husband is taught in the kesuva that he must honour his wife. He has to pay special attention to speak respectfully to her, (Yevomos 62b). He must not create an atmosphere of fear in the home. (Gittin 6b) Even on a busy Friday afternoon, when he wants to check whether his wife has tithed the vegetables or prepared the eiruv, he must speak softly to her. (ibid). At the same time a Jewish wife will show honour to her husband. Her husband sits at the top of the table. He is the head of the household – the captain of the ship. “What beautiful harmony there is in a Jewish home,” Bilaam may have thought. “She treats him like a king and he treats her like a queen.”

And then he may have noticed the children honouring their parents. They speak with love and respect. They don’t contradict, demand or argue. A mere hint from their parents and they run to bring them what they need. And they all sit round the table discussing insights on the weekly parsha and then sing together. The parents also show so much love for their children. Each child, no matter what number in the family, is a tachshit – a precious jewel. And isn’t that the elderly grandfather or grandmother? The family are looking after them with such devotion.

“This is incredible,” Bilaam must have thought.” Where I come from it’s every man for himself. Everyone is shouting, demanding, never satisfied. Our wives are our chattels. They’re not happy and we’re not happy. And the children? Don’t ask. As soon as they’re old enough, they’re away, only calling when they need more money. When we’re old, the ‘lucky’ ones get put in an old age home. The rest are left to cope by themselves, relying on the government to pay their winter heating bills. If you’re old and ill, the hospitals consider you worthless. A big sign “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” is hung on the end of your bed[1].

Bilaam might have noticed the quiet optimism which reigns in a Jewish home. They are full of faith and trust in Hashem. In the worst situations they say “All is for the best.” In the best situations they are full of praise to Hashem. They are happy people. They have beautiful families. Everything that Bilaam was lacking, they had. And so Bilaam, in the middle of cursing the Jews, in the height of his desperate quest to achieve the wealth and honour which he knew would bring him no happiness, bereft of all love except for his donkey, took a careful look at the Jewish homes and, in a rare moment of honesty, admitted, with perhaps a tear in his one eye, “ The Jewish home is indeed beautiful. Ma tovu oholecho Yaakov – How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov. And for once, he meant it.


Rabbi Fletcher is the mechaber of Do You Know Hilchos Shabbos? Do You Know Hilchos Brachos? Do You Know Shas? (Brachos-Pesachim), Dancing in our Hearts, The Hidden Light and many Torah articles. If you want to buy any of his sefarim or want to join his mailing list, please write to [email protected]


[1] Sometimes this is halachicly correct and appropriate. I am referring to times when it done out of lack of respect for the patient and without considering the sanctity of life.

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