Balak | What is the most important institution for Jewish life?
Updated: Apr 20
What are the key institutions of Jewish life? What are the structures that not only maintain Jewish life, but nurture it and enable it to thrive? The answer lies in the words that G-d placed in the mouth of Bilam in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah relates how Bilam is hired by the king of Moab to curse the Jewish people, and how that curse is transformed into words of blessing: “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel,” says the parsha. “Stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river.” (Numbers 24:5-6).
Clearly the “tents” and “dwelling places” of the Jewish people are fertile, life-giving places. They are compared to gardens and rivers and brooks. But what are they exactly? The Talmud explains that these “tents” and “dwelling places” refer variously to the three great institutions of Jewish life: the home, the shul and the Beit HaMidrash or “house of learning” (Bava Batra 60a, Sanhedrin 105b).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch focuses on the Jewish home. Citing this verse, he says that whether in humble tents or stately mansions, whether in turbulent exile or peaceful existence in Israel, it is the Jewish home that is the source of the vitality of the Jewish people. When the verse states “How good are your tents Jacob”, the essential quality we are talking about is goodness. It is not about the externalities of the house, but the tranquil atmosphere and strong values of the home. These values are the life force of the Jewish people, and it is in the home that they are shaped and reinforced and transmitted from one generation to the next.
What our children are exposed to within our homes as they grow up is what they will regard to be normal and natural. If our homes are suffused with acts of kindness, and words of encouragement; with the beauty of Shabbat and the festivals and of living a Jewish life; with the values of love and compassion, gratitude and simple decency; with the celebration of wisdom and study, faith and spirituality – then our children will grow up to value these things as well. If, on the other hand, these values are absent from our homes, they will be absent from our children’s worldview. The choice is ours to mould the homes we want.
The Sforno follows the other approach in the Talmud: that the “tents” refer to the Beit HaMidrash – the house of learning, and the “dwelling places” refer to the shul – the house of prayer. Both are places of spiritual inspiration through which we come close to G-d, the one through learning Torah the other through praying, both of which are cited by Pirkei Avot (1:2) as among the three spiritual pillars holding up the world. And both are a source of eternal blessing that have seen the Jewish people through the most turbulent and prosperous periods of our history and sustained us as a people and allowed us to thrive.
Prayer forms the basis of our emotional and spiritual connection to G-d, and the shul is the space in which we nurture that relationship. There is an interesting paradox when it comes to Jewish prayer. While undoubtedly an intensely personal experience, the concept of a minyan – of a community coming together to pray – is central to Jewish prayer. That is why a shul is called a beit knesset, a “place of gathering”. When we enter the shul to pray as a community, rather than just getting by on our own, we approach G-d with the collective merit of being part of Am Yisrael – the Jewish people. And it goes further. According to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, when we pray in a minyan, we connect ourselves not just to the people around us, and to other Jews around the world, but to generations of Jews throughout the ages.
When it comes to the Beit HaMidrash – the tents of Jacob – the verse’s comparison to rivers of water has added significance. The Gemara (Berachot 16a) says that the verse is teaching us about the purifying waters of the Beit HaMidrash. In the same way a river, which in certain circumstances can perform the function a mikveh, transforms a person from impurity to purity, so too does Torah learning have a transformative effect, uplifting our soul, purifying our heart, clarifying our mind. The transformational, life-giving nature of Torah learning has been borne out by Jewish history; communities connected to the institution of the Beit HaMidrash – and to Torah learning in general – are communities that survive and thrive, and transmit the values and traditions of Judaism from one generation to the next.
Pirkei Avot (6:1) states that a person who learns Torah for its own sake “becomes like an ever-increasing spring of water, and like a river that does not cease.” Rav Chaim of Volozhin says that the analogy is to a spring which pumps fresh, life-giving water and is able to clear away mud and dirt. In a similar way, the power of learning Torah clears away the debris of our lives, giving us a pristine space in which to connect with G-d and allowing us see the world through His eyes.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook offers a different perspective on the analogy with water, and its purifying effect. He says that water is a stark reminder of the temporary nature of this world. Though we do venture into the water on occasion, human beings are creatures of the land. We can’t survive in water for any length of time. Water is not our natural habitat, and not somewhere where we can relax and feel comfortable, and when we do find ourselves in water, it takes effort to stay afloat. And just like a human being was created to spend only a limited period of time in water, so too we were created to spend only a limited time on this physical plane. Our true, essential existence lies beyond this world. He further points out that the tents mentioned in the verse are another allusion to the temporary nature of this world.
Rav Kook says that the key to achieving greatness in this world is to recognise its transitory nature; to be constantly aware that our stay here is limited, and that the purpose of our life is simply to do as many mitzvot as possible, avoid bad, and in so doing to build that true, essential existence for ourselves in the next world. If we see ourselves as merely passing through this world that will alter our whole perspective. From that we will understand what the ultimate purpose of life is, which is to accumulate mitzvot and good deeds in this world in this world of free choice and challenge and to take it back with us to the eternal world – to olam habah. When people see this world as a permanent world, and as an end in and of itself, then it causes us to make our priorities the accumulation of the goods of this world rather than those of the next world; it causes us to pursue only the physical and material opportunities of this world and to ignore the spiritual and the moral ones. When we understand that we are just passing through and that our ultimate destination is the next world which is permanent, we then focus on the things of permanent and lasting value from the perspective of the world of eternity, and those things are G-d’s mitzvot.
When we understand that we are just passing through, and that our ultimate destination is the next world, we are able to focus on the pursuits that bring permanent, enduring value, the pursuits laid out in the Torah, which is the framework for building eternal life within a temporary frame of existence.
Learning Torah is the most potent reminder of what is lasting and what is temporary. When we sit down to learn in the Beit HaMidrash, we enter a portal in which we see the world through the eyes of G-d. Through learning Torah, we define and clarify our true purpose in life, what our priorities should be, what we are here to do.
The home, the shul, the house of learning. The three keystones of Jewish existence. Rich and fertile, the source of our inspiration, the basis of our identity. They flow with life-giving, purifying waters, helping us reach the heights we are all capable of, the greatness that God expects of us.