In Torah portion Balak, the Moabite King Balak becomes concerned that the Israelites are too numerous and will defeat Moab like they defeated the Amorites. (Num. 22:3) He hires Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jewish people. God speaks to Balaam and says, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Num. 22:12) Balaam explains to Balak that despite the massive rewarded offered for proclaiming curses on the king’s perceived enemies, the prophet can only say what God wants him to say.
Used to getting his way, Balak insists that Balaam curse the Jews and takes the prophet to the top of a mountain overlooking the Israelite settlement. Balaam tries three times, from three different vantage points, to pronounce curses on the Jews, but each time he showers them with blessings instead! Although Balaam himself despises the Jews, his blessings, channeled directly from God, have become some of the most treasured lines in Jewish liturgy. One of Balaam’s most famous blessings is said when a Jew enters synagogue: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”
Medieval commentator Rashi explains that Balaam, looking down from the mountaintop, is amazed by the unique way the Israelites set up their tents. Although arranged in an orderly format, no tent faces any other tent, giving each Jewish family privacy. Rashi posits another possible explanation for Balaam’s poetic reference to the Israelites’ goodly tents. He may be describing the Mishkan – the portable Temple where God’s presence dwells in the wilderness. In fact, both explanations are intertwined because a Jewish home is considered a mini-Temple. When we fill our living places with Torah and mitzvahs, with family harmony and holiday celebration, we bring God’s presence inside to dwell with us.
Image: Balak’s Sacrifice and Balaam’s Prophecy by August Hirschvogel, 1548