Parashat Balak: Home truths

There is a connection between the communal synagogue and the family home.

moroc synagogue 88 224 (photo credit: MYA GUARNIERI )
moroc synagogue 88 224
(photo credit: MYA GUARNIERI )
Balaam, a gentile prophet and sorcerer, has been hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. He certainly would have wished to do so, for he would then be accorded great honor by the neighboring kingdoms (who were terrified of this Hebrew slave-nation which had wrought such havoc against the mighty Egyptians), and would also receive a handsome reward. But the soothsayer who came to mock and revile remained to admire and bless. He views the Israeli encampment at this particular biblical juncture and despite himself feels constrained to declare: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob…." Since Israel's God-given task is to be a kingdom of priest-teachers (to the gentiles) and a holy nation, since our raison d'etre is to bring the nations of the world to accept the God of compassion and morality and to usher in universal peace, our sages have seen fit to use Balaam's words as the opening verse recited by every Jew as he enters the synagogue each morning. If this prophecy is so important, what exactly does it mean? What precisely did Balaam see in Israel that caused him to put aside the curses for which he was hired and substitute such stirring accolades? The classical commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), provides the most well-known interpretation: Balaam was impressed by the fact that the Israelite dwellings were constructed in such a way that no family could look into the personal lives of any other (T.B. Baba Batra 60b). And so Balaam, truly despite himself, is inspired to cry out: How good are your tents (homes), O Jacob, your neighborhoods, O Israel. Rashi is, in effect, teaching us that if we truly wish to influence the gentile world (and also the non-observant Jewish world), our most significant advertisement ought be the unique sanctity of our family lives and the sensitive caring of our communal lives. I cannot emphasize strongly enough to what extent the family as an institution is falling apart before our eyes, the rising rate of divorce which leads to a confusing medley (or cacophony) of "his children, her children and their children" at family gatherings, the lack of family cohesiveness which makes a modern home look more like a bus terminal in which everyone has his/her own schedule, rarely get together, and when they do, often clash. From a traditional Jewish perspective, the relationship of husband and wife, which unites two individuals as one and enables them to become God's partners in the creation of life, is the climax of sanctity - the marriage ceremony in Hebrew is called kiddushin (sanctity). A couple is defined as loving friends (and not merely as business partners who only discuss budgets or children's schooling), and the family meets frequently (hopefully every evening, and especially for the three Sabbath meals which spice the year with drama and excitement) over good food, spirited song and conversations centering on biblical readings, national ideals and personal experiences. For a couple to continue to grow as loving friends and for a family to work together as a supportive unit dedicated to the personal growth of each member and committed to the well-being of community and nation, the major requirement is time - both quality and quantity time - dedicated exclusively to family life. Our traditional rituals provide a marvelous canvas within which to create familial cohesiveness, but it cannot be done without the investment of time and energy. The Sforno provides an alternative interpretation: "How beautiful are your homes of Torah study (batei Torah) and your homes of synagogue gatherings (batei knesset)." Homes of Torah study are schools and religious courts, the very places where the laws and customs which make us a unique people, indeed, a holy nation, are taught and applied. Homes of synagogue gatherings are our prayer houses, where our communal rendezvous with God as well as the significant moments of our national history - in effect, our Divine experiences - are eternalized and personalized. These "institutions" are also called homes (beit hamikdash, beit hasefer, beit haknesset) as they must be an extension of the home, and the home must be an extension of them. Our synagogues, our courts and our schools must be permeated by the love, sensitivity, caring and support which the individual family hopefully feels for each of its members, even for those who are different, even for those who are needy, even for those who are "other." Would Balaam say the same thing if he looked out at our homes and communities, our religious institutions and halls of learning today? The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.