The Prophet Bilaam and King Balak of Moab gazing down at the Israelite camp
“How Goodly are Your Tents, O Jacob!”
This week’s Torah portion read in Israel (Balak -Numbers 22:2-25:9) tells us about King Balak’s attempt to curse the Nation of Israel.
Before entering the Land of Israel, the Jews were encamped on the east side of the Jordan River at the foot of the Moab Mountains.
Balak, as King of Moab, had heard of the miraculous exodus from Egypt and the defeat of mighty Og, the King of the neighboring Amorites to the north.
Fearful of the sheer numbers of the Israelites, Balak sent for the Prophet Bilaam from Avraham’s home country, to curse these Children of Abraham.
Bilaam warned Balak, that he could only say what God told him to say. And after some failed attempts, they ascended a mountain, offered sacrifices to God in an attempt to gain favor to be able to curse the Israelites.
Gazing down at the encampment Bilaam uttered these famous words (Numbers 24:5)
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”
One last time, Bilaam blessed the Jewish People instead of cursing them, and in anger, Balak sent Bilaam away.
The Sages teach us that the cryptic verse above is the hint to why they could not be cursed and were afforded God’s protection.
What was so “good” about their “tents” and “dwellings?” The Talmud in Bava Batra 60a explains:
Rabbi Yoḥanan says that the verse states: “And Bilaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2).
The Talmud explains:
What was it that Bilaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.
Intimate relations between husband and wife are considered a spiritual matter and meant to be kept private. When sexuality is purposely on public display it reduces it to a physical act, not worthy of God’s presence.
After sending Bilaam away, Balak understood from BIlaam that the key to making Israel lose God’s protection was to seduce them into performing public sexual acts and turning sexuality into a simple act of physical pleasure and rob it of its spirituality which ultimately led them to worship idols.
Balak arranged for prostitutes to seduce the Jewish men and get them drunk and worship idols. The details of this scheme and how it worked is detailed in Sanhedrn 106a.
The Torah portion continues after Bilaam departs (Numbers 25:1-3):
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the men profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women,who invited the men to the sacrifices for their god. The men partook of them and worshiped that god. In this way Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, God was incensed with Israel.
The ultimate profanity then occurs. Zimri, the head of the Tribe of Shimon brought Cozbi, a Midianite woman, into the camp and engaged in relations with her at the entrance to the Tabernacle in the sight of the whole community including Moshe! (Numbers 25:6)
Twenty four thousand people died in a plague as a result of this wanton behavior by some of the Israelite men, culminating in Zimri’s public desecration.
MESSAGE FOR TODAY
There are those who want the modern State of Israel to be a country like all others based on western democratic liberal values.
They take “Pride” in this month of June, that Tel Aviv is the “Gay Capital of the Middle East” . Parades, festivals and concerts are on full public display, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to participate and watch.
I believe everyone is free to do what they want in the privacy of their own tent. Almost every family has someone who lives a lifestyle not based on Torah values.
But when my fellow Jews put on public display (outside the privacy of their own tents) something that goes directly against the values communicated by the Almighty through His Torah in defiance of Torah values, I fear for my People and my Country.
May we all be blessed with wisdom to connect with the Almighty and His values… and return to a more modest, spiritual life.
That is the secret to bringing peace to Israel and the rest of the world.
With blessings for peace from Israel.