Parshat Balak: The secret of the Jewish nation’s survival

The phenomenon of assimilation grew against the backdrop of the disintegration of the family unit.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Balaam, the successful magician, tried to curse Am Yisrael three times. He gave it three attempts, each at a different place, from a different angle, and he failed all three times.
At the beginning of the Torah portion, we read about Balaam, a man known as a magician and prophet to whom people from distant lands turn, ingratiating themselves in pleas that he should bless them or curse their enemies. Then, the elders of Midian and Moab turn to him to curse Israel. By the end of the parsha, we see him being treated with disdain as Balak, the king of Moab and the one who requested the curses, dismisses Balaam with the words, “Escape to your place.”
The depth of the humiliation was expressed by Balaam, the magician known to carry his powers in his words, when he was not able to speak the words he meant to say, and instead spoke other words which had been put in his mouth by G-d. It is for this reason that Balaam’s words interest us. It was not Balaam who said his utterances since they were spoken by him despite himself. The content of the words – even though they were spoken by him – are undoubtedly of great significance.
Indeed, one sentence of Balaam’s provides the reason for the Jewish nation’s surprising narrative throughout the thousands of years of its existence, especially during its years in exile when the nation was dispersed around the world. Despite this, the nation continued to exist, preserving its uniqueness and the ancient traditions of the Torah while other nations that underwent similar historical processes disappeared and were forever erased.
This sentence, said from Balaam’s perspective, sheds light on this fascinating phenomenon.
This is how the Torah describes Balaam’s outlook: “Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes.”
And he later continues with the following verse: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24, 2-5) The secret as revealed to us by Balaam is hidden in the focus on the home, as explained also by the sages of the Talmud: “Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes – What did he see? He saw that the entrances to their tents do not face each other. He said, These are worthy to have the Divine Presence among them.” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Baba-Batra, daf 60) This is the secret to the wondrous survival of the Jewish nation. He understood well that as long as the nation preserves this secret, no curse or scheme can overcome it.
And what is this secret? “That the entrances to their tents do not face each other.” Preserving the sacred structure of the family, the obstinate insistence on the purity of the family framework, that bequeaths to following generations the unique characteristics of Judaism – this is what safeguarded the Jewish nation and preserved it throughout so many years and under such difficult conditions.
When the entrances do not face each other, it means that the home is a private and protected fortress. Family is a structure that does not cast its glances outward nor can those outside it peek in. The power of the family was the Jewish nation’s ammunition when facing all the outside factors that tried to harm it.
Even today, we must concern ourselves with the continuity of the Jewish nation. The phenomenon of assimilation grew against the backdrop of the disintegration of the family unit and was only able to develop under such conditions. If we want our children to continue our magnificent Jewish tradition, we must strengthen the family unit and invest heavily in it. Thus, following generations will feel that they have strong foundations and will want to build upon them by building the next courses of the nation.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.