Acquiescing to the pleading of Balak, king of Moav, the prophet Balaam attempted to curse the People of Israel. From his vantage point, Balaam saw the encampment of Israel and could not but bless what his eyes beheld.
Using poetic imagery, Balaam praised the Israelite tents that lay before him: "How goodly are your tents (ohel), O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. Like brooks (nahal) stretched out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes (ohel) planted by God, like cedars beside the water" (Numbers 24:5-6).
Our sages comment on Balaam's use of simile, focusing on the comparison between tents and water: "Just as brooks raise people from impurity to purity, thus tents raise people from the scale of guilt to the scale of merit" (B. Berachot 15b-16a).
The change of status from impurity to purity is affected by immersion in a mikve, a body of water - such as a brook (Leviticus 11:36) - that serves as a ritual bath.
Which "tents" are being referenced in this passage? A parallel version of this analogy explicitly translates the tents: "Just as the impure descend into this brook and arise pure, so too with the Temple - one enters with sin and exits without sin" (Midrash Tehillim 5:1).
In the post-Temple reality, these tents - and other tent references in our tradition - were rendered with contemporary relevance as the Temple substitutes: the beit midrash (study hall) and the beit knesset (synagogue), that is, the Tents of Torah Study (B. Sanhedrin 105b and elsewhere).
Unpacking the connection between a tent and a sacred space - Temple, beit midrash and beit knesset - one commentator explains that tent dwellers are people who distance themselves from areas of settlement, pitching their tents away from a mundane, worldly existence. Choosing holy space as an abode is also choosing a path that departs from an unsanctified physical existence, and reflects a consecration of life for the sacred (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland).
Thus, decoding the talmudic analogy we arrive at the following: Just as immersion in a mikve elevates a person from impurity to purity, so too plunging into the depths of our heritage by residing in the beit midrash and beit knesset can raise a person from the scale of guilt to the scale of merit.
Our sages offer this comparison between ritual cleansing and immersion in the tradition, but take it no further. Scholars over the generations pondering this talmudic passage have offered additional insights: Would we not know of the power of the beit midrash and the beit knesset to convert fault to merit were it not for Balaam's analogy? In countless places our sages reflect on the effectiveness of our Tents of Torah: "If that despicable scoundrel - referring to the evil inclination - affects you, drag him to the beit midrash" (B. Succa 52b; B. Kiddushin 30b). What, therefore, did Balaam's analogy add?
This question illuminates the potency of the Tents of Torah Study: Ritual purification can be affected even without the intent to go through the purification process. Thus, if a person ready for ritual cleansing was thrust unwillingly or unknowingly into a mikve, that person would emerge purified (B. Hullin 31a). Entering the beit midrash or beit knesset, albeit without proper motives - whether social pressures dictate involvement or people's desire for honor lead them to participation - the Tents of Torah have the force to convert culpability to merit (Hida, 18th century, Eretz Israel-Italy; Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, 19th-20th centuries, Russia).
Though intent is not necessary, other regulations do exist: Just as the utility of the mikve is bounded, so too the power of the beit midrash is circumscribed. Partial submersion in a mikve is not considered a valid immersion; the entire body, with no intervening objects, must be enveloped by the waters. The potency of the Tents of Torah is also dependent on total immersion. Entering the beit midrash in body but not in soul negates the power of the experience (Pnei Menahem of Gur, in the name of his father the Beis Yisrael, 20th century, Israel).
Furthermore, not every puddle can be considered a mikve. Just as there are benchmarks for categorizing a body of water as a mikve, there are yardsticks by which a place of learning can be considered a potent Tent. To be sure, the parameters of a mikve are clearly delineated; defining a Tent of Torah Study is somewhat more nebulous.
These comparisons lend volume to the sages' understanding of Balaam's poetic blessing. Nevertheless, our contemporary concept of ritual purity is far removed from the understandings of the bygone Temple era. The analogy between bathing and dwelling in the Tents of Torah can also be rendered in current notions of hygiene, giving it an accessible relevant meaning.
Extricating dirt that is embedded in the folds of our skin can require vigorous scouring. At times, it seems that we are not removing the dirt but the skin itself. While we attempt to return to our former, pristine state we cry out in pain, only later appreciating the scrubbing as our skin glows. At the end of the process we realize that we have in fact removed the foreign bodies that concealed our true self.
An encounter with our tradition can also be a painful experience. As foreign bodies are pried from our existence we cry out, feeling that we are being dismembered, that our very identity is being peeled away layer by layer. Only later do we see that our true self has not been eroded but revealed. We can then appreciate the return to our pristine state as cleansed individuals.
Our tradition, however, is like no other cleansing agent. Soap cleans the dirt that has piled up; Torah supplies a protective coating that endows our souls with a veneer that repels dirt: "At the time that one is involved in Torah study, the Torah protects from punishment and saves from sinning" (B. Sotah 21a).
Balaam noticed how fortunate our people are that the rivers of Torah flow through our communities, stretching before us enticingly and tendering an opportunity for the spiritual cleansing of our souls through immersion in our heritage.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.