Balak: Looking Into Our Own Tents

By Ilana Grinblat

Published June 23, 2010.
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Last weekend, I was at a gathering mostly of families with small children. When a young couple (who’ve only been married a couple years) came, one of the dads pointed to a child and joked: “Who said you could come to the party without one of these?!” The next day I was at a different party with the same couple and heard an acquaintance ask them: ‘So are you thinking of having kids soon?’ The couple desperately wants children but for a series of very good reasons, they’ve decided to wait one more year before trying. Until then, they have to deal with such questions on a regular basis.

I wish I could say that such questions end when you have kids, but they don’t. I was once with a friend who has three young kids, when she was asked by an acquaintance whether or not they plan on a fourth!

Likewise, a friend of mine recently decided to leave a job that she’d been at for several years. For good reason, she doesn’t yet know what her next professional move will be and will need some time to research options and decide. In the meantime, she has to respond to students and colleagues asking each day about her plans and admit that she’s not sure.

These incidents reminded me of a story from this week’s Torah portion and made me think about it in a new way. This week’s Torah portion is named for Balak, the King of Moab who asked a great sorcerer named Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam followed Balak to a mountain overlooking Israel’s campsite. However, when Balaam saw the people from above he was suddenly inspired to bless them instead. He exclaimed: “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” These words are the source of the Mah Tovu blessing which is recited when entering a synagogue.

The rabbis of the Talmud rightly asked: What did Balaam see that changed his mind and prompted him to bless the people? He didn’t get to know the people, so what could he have possibly seen from above which changed his opinion? They answered that “he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another and said: ‘these people are worthy that God’s presence should rest upon them.’” Since they had arranged their entrances so no one could see inside their neighbor’s tent, Balak was impressed by how the community protected each family’s privacy.

This teaching not only pertains to how to arrange our homes but our words as well. Often when we ask questions, we inadvertently seek to peer into our acquaintances’ tents, so to speak. We want to know their plans and to get a better glimpse into their family life. Yet, this Talmudic teaching encourages us to focus on our own tent instead.

When making personal life decisions — about jobs, kids and relationships — we need to examine our own home and heart to determine what is best for our family. We need to summon the strength to ignore others’ comments and questions to find our own path.

With the rise of reality television and social media, our society seems ever more eager to reveal the details of each other’s personal lives. In such an atmosphere, this teaching is an important corrective.

By declaring a moratorium on pressuring questions, by looking into our own homes rather than each other’s, we too can become worthy of the blessing: “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.


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