BALAK (Numbers, 22:2-25:9) — “How Good is YOUR Tent?”

How good your tents are, Jacob, your Tabernacles, Israel.” (Numbers, 24:5)

What’s so good about Jacob’s tents?


Balaam, the great Gentile prophet, the author of the above-quoted verse, hated Jacob.  (Some commentaries say he had known Jacob personally – that he was Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law, Laban!  See “Rocky Road”.) He hated Jacob and he hated the Nation of Israel.  And he was committed to put that hatred to work.

Balak, the Moabite king, hired Balaam to curse Israel.  Now why, you may ask, would an anti-Semite like Balak need to hire someone to curse Jews?  Plenty of people would be happy to do it for free!

Cursing, you see, is a great talent.  Some people do it better than others.  Balaam was a pro:

“Behold!  A nation has left Egypt; it has covered the face of the earth (Meaning:  they have defeated other kings (see “The Bigger They Are …”) who we had hoped would protect us — Rashi’s commentary.) and it sits opposite me.  (Meaning: and are close by to destroy me — Rashi) … Please come and curse this nation for me … perhaps I will be able to strike it and drive it away from the land.  For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”  (Numbers, 22:5-6)

Anybody can curse.  The hard part is cursing someone and having the curse “take.”  Balaam was a professional curser; he really knew his business.  As the king told him, “… whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”  Balaam got the job.

Balak wanted to undermine G-d’s protection of Israel.  He figured that a great sorcerer like Balaam could use his great spiritual powers to turn G-d against His people.  And Balaam, that great hater of Israel, was more than happy to comply.

… Or, at least, to TRY to comply.

Much as Balaam wanted to collect his hefty fee for cursing his favorite enemy, G-d stopped him.  Balaam kept trying, but the “curses” kept coming out as blessings.   G-d just wouldn’t let him do it.

Why not?    I think it was the tents:

Balaam saw that it was good in G-d’s eyes to bless Israel … Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him… he said … “How good your tents are , Jacob, your Tabernacles, Israel.”  (Ibid. 24:1-3, 5)

What did Balaam see in those tents that made them so deserving of G-d’s blessings?

Rashi tells us that the tents were set up in such a way that the entrances didn’t face each other.  One couldn’t look out one’s own window and see what was going on in the neighbor’s tent.  Balaam saw that and he was impressed.  This recognition of Israel’s respect for mutual privacy led G-d to place His spirit upon Balaam.


Where one finds genuine modesty, one finds holiness.  It is none of my business what goes on in the privacy of your home.  That is between you, your loved ones, and G-d.  The tents faced away from each other to indicate that holy people don’t involve themselves in other people’s intimate activities.

That, perhaps, could be the meaning of the double expression of Balaam’s blessing:  How good your tents are, Jacob, your TABERNACLES, Israel.

When a TENT, a home, is GOOD, i.e., respectful of the privacy of others, that home becomes a TABERNACLE.  A home that is filled with modesty and mutual respect is a Tabernacle, a Temple where G-d can rest his Divine Presence.  Balaam the prophet discerned the sanctity of the houses of Israel, and even he was overwhelmed by their holiness.  He couldn’t help but to proclaim praises for G-d and His beloved nation.


Have you ever noticed the garbage that they encourage you to buy at the checkout counter?   Inquiring into people’s private lives is a multi-million dollar industry.  Trashy people sell trashy stories about allegedly trashy people to trashy papers and trashy TV talk shows. Every deed and misdeed is recorded by the paparazzi for posterity.  Every comment uttered is quoted, misquoted, analyzed and misanalyzed by the self-appointed experts.

Is there no decency?  Is there no respect?  Is there no modesty?

Balaam realized that his efforts to curse Israel would fail as long as Israel lived a life of decency and modesty.  That’s why he eventually realized that the only way to effectively curse the Israelites was to corrupt their morals.  (See “Of Television, Toilets, and Idolatry”.)  Then he would no longer have to curse them; they would curse themselves with their own actions.

Not only is our society decadent; it is worse than that.  There is no shame.  There is no embarrassment.  Society revels in its own decadence.  The more we can find out about other people’s dysfunctional lives, the better.  (Who knows, maybe people enjoy learning about other people’s shortcomings so they don’t have to feel guilty about their own deficiencies!)

“How good your tents are , Jacob, your Tabernacles, Israel” How good are OUR tents?  How discrete are we in our private matters?  How respectful are we of the privacy of others?

Balaam wanted to curse our nation.  G-d wouldn’t let him, due to the holiness of our homes.

How holy are OUR homes?  If Balaam tried to peek into our windows, what would he see?  What books would he find in our homes?  What would he find in our computer memories?

What would G-d let Balaam say about us?

Have a great Shabbos

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives

Some years the two Torah Portions of Chukas and Balak are read together, and some years they are read on two separate Sabbaths.  For your convenience, here are links to both Portions:


“A Sad Shabbos in New York State” (2011)

…  While some societies have not condemned these activities the way the Torah does, it was always recognized that the institution of marriage was about a man and a woman.  A man doesn’t marry his car.  A man doesn’t marry his pet iguana.  And a man doesn’t marry a man…

Last Shabbos, we read the story of Korach.  Korach didn’t like the way the Commandments were working out…

Last Friday night … the State of New York decided to emulate Korach…

How did this tragedy/travesty in New York happen?  It’s really rather simple… 

Read more. 


“Who’s ‘The MAN’? … YOU’RE ‘The MAN’!” (2010)

… Ezekiel cites the special relationship between G-d and Israel…

The Talmud interprets “…you are Man…”, to mean “You (i.e., Israel) are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ‘MAN.’

What does the Talmud mean by, “You are called ‘MAN; the nations of the world are not called ’MAN”?   Certainly it can’t mean to humiliate Gentiles and to consider them less than human!  The Talmud is replete with references to the fact that all of humanity was created in G-d’s Image.  We share the planet with our fellow Children of G-d.

So what does it mean?…

Read more .


“Tattle-Snakes & Copperheads” (2005)

… G-d said to Moses, “Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole.  Anyone who has been bitten will look at it and live.”  Moses made a snake out of copper and placed it on a pole; so it was that anyone who had been bitten would stare at the copper snake and live

The symbolism is beautiful.  Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, they sinned with their tongues.  Since they acted like snakes, they were punished with snakes.  After sinning with their mouths they repented with their mouths.  They corrected the wrong by using their mouths properly.  Moses undid the poison of the miraculous punishing-snakes with a miraculous healing-snake.

Great!  Just one question.  What’s the deal with the copper?…

Read more.


“The Kiss of LIFE” (2004)

The “Brothers ben-Amram” both died shortly before the Israelites entered the Land of Canaan (Israel) …  Our Sages point out a contrast between the nation’s reaction to these deaths. The Children of Israel wept for Moses, while the entire House of Israel wept for Aaron.

The Children (literally, sons) of Israel wept for Moses.  The men wept over the loss of their respected judge.  The entire House of Israel, men and women, wept over the loss of their beloved peacemaker…

Moses and Aaron had different jobs… the mourning for Aaron was more widespread than for Moses.

Whose approach was better?  Who was a better advocate of proper behavior?…

Read more.


“Stone Drunk” (2002)

… The People were thirsty.  … Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A great deal of water gushed out, and provided water for the community and their animals.”

G-d was furious:  “Since you (and Aaron) didn’t have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly to the land that I have given them.”

… the people witnessed a great miracle.  A rock was struck, and water flowed from it.  The Israelites hadn’t seen a miracle like that in 40 years!  How is this a lack of faith on Moses’ part? …

Read more.


“The Bigger They Are…” (2001)

Og … organized an army againstIsrael, and once again, we were forced to fight off an aggressor.  … Moses needed some encouragement:

G-d said to Moses, ‘Don’t be afraid of him…”

G-d doesn’t waste words.  He told Moses not to be afraid to fight Og.  … Moses was afraid that Og would be rewarded for a Mitzvah he had done many years before…

What a Mitzvah!!  Og tells Abraham to go saveLotso he can be killed and Og can marry his widow!  With friends like Og, who needs enemies?!  How could Moses actually suspect that G-d would reward Og for such a deceitful, treacherous act?…

Read more.



“Rocky Road” (2010)

…What’s with this guy?!  He’s a sorcerer, the great Midianite prophet!  He is “one who knows the mind of the Supreme One.” (Verse 16)  How is it so hard for him to see that G-d doesn’t want him to do this?

… it all started with a question.  G-d had asked Balaam, “Who are these people?”

“Aha!” thought Balaam.  “G-d doesn’t know everything!  He needs to ask me who these people are!  If I play my cards right, I’ll be able to pull the wool over His eyes and curse His beloved Nation.”…

Read more.


“How Good is YOUR Tent?” (2007)

…Balak, the Moabite king, hired Balaam to curseIsrael.  Now why, you may ask, would an anti-Semite like Balak need to hire someone to curse Jews?  Plenty of people would be happy to do it for free!

Cursing, you see, is a great talent.  Some people do it better than others.  Balaam was a pro…

Read more.


“Of Television, Toilets, and Idolatry” (2003)

… There was, however, one condition demanded by the Midianites.  They insisted that their “clients” pay homage to their idol, “Baal Pe’or.”

…  “You don’t have to pray to our idol, or even to bow to it.  All you have to do is…

Have you ever heard of anything so bizarre? …

Read more.


“Will the REAL Jackass Please Speak Up?” (2000)

… Balaam still didn’t get it.  Three times, Balaam tried to curse the Nation of Israel; three times, they came out as blessings… Fired from his job by Balak, Balaam went home in disgrace.

What was going on in Balaam’s head?  How could a great oracle who was “One who knows the mind of the Supreme One,” make such a mistake?  How could he be so blind to the fact that G-d didn’t want him to go on this mission?  How did this brilliant prophet allow his donkey to make a jackass out of him?!

The answer can be seen from one of Balaam’s communications with Balak…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel ( and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on June 28, 2007 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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