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July 3, 2009 4:44 pm

Balak: Camping With G-d

avatar by Yosef Y. Jacobson

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Izzy is sitting in synagogue one Sabbath morning when he falls asleep and starts to snore. The synagogue care taker quickly comes over to him, taps him softly on his shoulder and says, “Please stop your snoring, Izzy, you’re disturbing the others in the shul.”

“Now look here,” says Issy, “I always pay my membership in full, so I feel I have a right to do whatever I want.”

“Yes, I agree,” replies the caretaker, “but your snoring is keeping everybody else awake.”

Tents and dwellings

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This week’s Torah portion, Balak, tells the fascinating story of Balaam, a prophet and archenemy of the Jewish people, who was summoned by the Moabite king to curse Israel. In the end, in lieu of curses, the prophet gushes forth the most splendid poetry ever written about the uniqueness and destiny of the Jewish people. His poetry has become classic, a wellspring of inspiration for thousands of years.

In one of the stanzas, Balaam declares enthusiastically:

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel!”

This is a verse Jews came to love so profoundly that they start the morning prayers with it every day, 365 days a year.

And today I wish to share with you an inspiring interpretation on this verse by the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement.

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel,” Balaam says. There are tents and there are dwellings. The tents belong to Jacob; the dwellings to Israel. But this seems to be a redundant statement? What is the difference between tents and dwellings, and why is one associated with Jacob, the other with Israel?

A tale of Two Structures

In the physical sense, the difference between a tent and a dwelling is simple. A tent is a temporary structure, initially designed to be taken apart with the same swiftness it was put up, while a dwelling connotes a permanent edifice and residence.

On a symbolic level, “tents” and “dwellings” represent two diverse spiritual pathways. There are human beings who carve out of their hearts a permanent dwelling space for G-d. Their epiphany with G-d never ends. His presence in their lives is consistent and undeviating. Their homes and spirits serve as a residence for G-d.

But then there are the individuals who are not so spiritually sensitive or exalted. These human beings are too overwhelmed with the stress of daily life, to be able to continuously breathe-in a G-d-centered consciousness. The pressures in the office, the burdens of holding a family together, the endless deadlines and the many vicissitudes of life’s experiences, deprive them of their ability to remain forever inspired and focused on the divine truths of existence. Add to this the incessant materialistic lusts and demands of a human body, which often completely eclipse G-d’s reality.

Notwithstanding this, even these individuals, once in a while — perhaps early in the morning, late at night, or sometimes in the midst of a hectic day — experience a yearning to spend a few moments with G-d. Even people of this category sense, every once in a while, a frustration, a void, which leads them to open their hearts to G-d. They then construct a tent, a temporary space to which they invite G-d, if only for a brief while.

It may be, for example, a few moments before sunset. A Jew, immersed in work, suddenly reminds himself that he did not “daven mincah” (pray the traditional dusk service). He runs into shul (synagogue) and starts talking to G-d, swiftly. In 8 minutes he is done. What he is essentially saying is, “G-d, I do not have much time; I have so much on my head today. So let’s just spend eight minutes together. Let us cover the basics and I will be off to deal with the big tough world out there.”

This Jew by no means creates a fixed and permanent dwelling for G-d. At best, he erects a tent, where he and G-d spend a few moments together…

The Heel and the Head

These two types of individuals are defined by the archetype names of Jacob and Israel. In Hebrew, Jacob (Yaakov) means a heel; Israel (Yisroel) consists of the letters which make up the words “My head” (le rosh). The heel and the head represent, of course, two extremes. Jacob was given this name when he emerged from his mother’s womb holding on to his brother Esau’s heel, attempting to take his place as the firstborn. He only received the name Israel after he fought his rival and prevailed.

Jacob, in other words, symbolizes the person enmeshed in battle; Israel is the one who emerged triumphant. Jacob erects temporary tents for G-d; Israel builds permanent dwellings.

One might think that it is the dwellings of Israel which are embraced by G-d. Jacob’s tents are at best tolerable, but not desirable.

Comes Balaam and declares: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; Your dwellings, O Israel!”

Not only are Jacob’s tents goodly and beautiful, but they are, in a way, given preference over Israel’s dwellings! First the Torah declares, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob;” only afterward “Your dwellings, O Israel!”

It is precisely in the non-spiritual demeanor of the “Jacob” personality where the objective of creation is fulfilled: To introduce the light of G-d into the darkness of earth’s landscape. Israel’s dwellings are islands of transcendence, but it is in Jacob’s tents where the physicality and brute-ness of the human condition are sanctified.

When a human being – bogged down by a myriad of pressures, frustrated by the void of meaning and truth in his life — tears himself away for a few moments from the turmoil and says, “G-d, liberate me from my tension!” This person fulfills the purpose for which this stressful world was originally created: That it be exploited to fuel a longing for meaning far deeper and truer than any spiritual longing ever experienced on the landscape of paradise.

Or as one Rebbe put it: “G-d tells us, ‘I ask of you to give me only a few moments every day, but those few moments should be exclusively mine.'”

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