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Home » Balak

Balak: Tents of Torah

Submitted by on June 22, 2014 – 4:39 amNo Comment | 2,954 views


On June 16th, a powerful tornado thundered through a small town in Ontario called, Angus. Entire sections were torn off houses, leaving homes without roofs and walls. The next day there was a report on the radio that because of safety concerns officials wouldn’t allow residents to inspect the damage to their homes. With yet another storm brewing, the radio host wondered aloud what it might be like to have a home full of valuables with no roof or walls to protect them from the coming storm.

As I contemplated a storm lashing at roofless homes I was reminded of an analogy by Rabbi Adin Steinslatz. In his book Hatorah V’hatfilah, he writes about the value of mindfulness during prayer and uses the following analogy. Praying without directing our attention to the words of our prayer is like filling a home with valuables, but neglecting to attach a roof. Just as the rain is liable to fall in and destroy the valuables, so do distracting thoughts seep in to our mind and ruin our prayer experience.

Tents and Dwelling Places

One of the most oft quoted verses in the Torah is, “How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”[1] This ode to the Jew, was coined by Balaam, a sworn enemy of the Jew, yet because he understood the value of securing a dwelling place with a tent, he lauded us for this achievement.

You will note that the verse attributes the tents to Jacob and the dwelling places to Israel. Jacob and Israel were the same person, in his youth he was called Jacob and at a later date was named Israel.

The Torah describes Jacob as, “a wholesome person, who sits in tents.”[2] That the Torah attributes tents (plural) to him tells us that he had at least two tents. Now bear in mind that Esau, his brother, told their father Isaac that Jacob in Hebrew means to mislead because Jacob misled Esau twice. Once when he manipulated him into selling the birthright and once when he collected their father’s blessings.

Thus, when the Torah links the tents to Jacob, “How good are your tents O Jacob,” it suggests that Jacob’s two tents are somehow related to the two occasions when Jacob lived up to his name.

A tent is an exterior enclosure that protects the interior. The interior of the Jewish people is its soul and essential connection to G-d. The tent protects this interior, this connection.

There are two forms of behavior that protect our interior, the first is avoidance of sinful behavior and the second is performance of good deeds. These are synonymous with Jacob’s two tasks. The first was to prevent sin by ensuring that Esau was stripped of the birthright – should this sacred and powerful treasure have been left with Esau it would have been utilized for sinful purpose. The second task was to collect Esau’s blessings and put them to good use in constructive and holy ways. Thus, the two major feats that he performed as Jacob, represent the two tents of sin avoidance and good deeds.[3]Tents - innerstream.ca

These are the tents that preserve and protect the interior, the dwelling place, the essence of the Jewish people. The dwelling place is associated with Israel as the Torah says, “Your dwelling places O Israel.” Jacob was named Israel when he wrestled with G-d thus the name Israel connotes our relationship with G-d. The dwelling place, our Israel, is our internal bond with G-d. It is the interior of our tent – it is private; concealed within a tent and enclosed by its protection.

If you rearrange the Hebrew letters of the word Yisrael, Hebrew for Israel, you will find the words Li Rosh, which mean to me [through the] the head. The mind is tasked with Torah study and through that study we ascend the rungs of holiness to forge a connection with G-d. “To me,” come to me, “though the head,” through your Torah study. Thus the dwelling place is built through Torah study.

Not Enough

We began this essay with a story about roofless houses filled with valuables vulnerable to the elements because they lay unprotected. The Torah is the Jew’s highest and greatest value. It is the path that leads to G-d. Through it we come to know G-d’s mind and understand His teachings.

One might think that since Torah study is the highest ideal, it is sufficient to study Torah and there is no need to observe G-d’s commandments. Comes the Torah and tells us that the commandments, both positive and negative, are Judaism’s tent.

Without a proper tent, our dwelling place can’t survive. It is exposed to the elements and will quickly erode. The Commandments grant us a holy and noble way of life. They are our opportunity to live life the way G-d wants us to live it. They are our opportunity to turn our lives into platforms for His service. If we study without performing the commandments we compromise the holiness of our Torah study and the purity of our bond with G-d. Torah without observance is not enough.

By the same token, observance without study is also not enough. Building a large and comfortable tent, but leaving it empty, is a waste of our time and resources. The observances, the way of life that is devoted to doing good and avoiding evil, is a tent. A platform on which wonderful things can be achieved. But if we don’t fill that platform with wonderful things, if we don’t utilize this opportunity to enhance our bond with G-d through Torah study we have wasted a golden opportunity. We built a tent and left it empty.


Which is Worse, to build a tent and leave it empty or to fill a dwelling place with valuables and fail to protect it?

Actually, that is a trick question. Neither is worse because neither is better. When Balaam saw our people he praised them for having both. Let’s not choose between the two. If someone asks which one we want, respond as a child would when asked to choose between two candies. The only thing that can be said.

Both. [4]


[1] Numbers 23:5.

[2] Genesis 25: 27.

[3] The tent cover was made of goat skin, the precise skin that Jacob used in his subterfuge against Esau. This is a further indication of the link between Jacob’s tasks and the tent of Israel.

[4] This essay is based on Likutei Torah, Bamidbar, p. 73

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