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B'Midbar/Numbers 24:5 How good are your tents, O Ya'akov, your dwelling places, O Israel.
These words start the third pronouncement by Balaam, the son of
Be'or, who had been hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse Israel as they
lay on the plains of Moab waiting to enter the Land. The six words of this
verse have been immortalised in the words of prayer at the beginning of the
morning prayer service, upon entering the synagogue:
B'Midbar 24:5-7 (JPS)
Siddur - Mah Tovu (ADP)
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! Like
palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes
planted by the L-RD, like cedars beside the water; their boughs drip
with moisture, their roots have abundant water. Their king shall
rise above Agag, their kingdom shall be exalted.
How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel. As for me,
I will come into Your house. I will bow down to Your holy Temple in
awe of You, L-rd. I love the habitation of Your house, the place
where Your glory dwells. As for me, I will bow in worship; I will
bend the knee before the L-rd my Maker.
Structured as a noun sentence, with a verb - in this case, 'are' - from the root "to be" implied, the words "your tents, O Ya'akov" and "your dwelling places, O Israel" are held in parallel.Targum Onkelos changes 'goodly tents' (plural) to 'good land' (singular), focusing on the land of Canaan where the people are going. Onkelos also changes 'your dwellings' (plural) to 'your camp' (singular), to point to the unity of the people of Israel. The Baal HaTurim, on the other hand, emphasises that "the plural form (tents) is used because Ya'akov is in an earthly tent [i.e. a dwelling] and in a heavenly tent, on the Throne of Glory." The Tur connects this to the verse "Ya'akov was a quiet man who stayed in the tents" (B'resheet 25:27, CJB), and the Midrash adds that there were "two tents: the study hall of Shem and the study hall of Eber" (B'resheet Rabbah 63:10). Rashi disagrees, claiming that the two tents were "the Tent of Shilo where the Tabernacle was situated for 369 years, until the death of Eli the High Priest in 2870 (b. Zevachim 118b) and the Eternal House - the Temple." Even when they are in a state of destruction, Rashi argues, "they are a security for Israel [ is seen as related to , 'collateral, security'], and their destruction is an atonement for lives."
The ancient commentators also had an opinion about what 'tents' and 'dwellings' might be. The Sages of the Talmud understand them as schools and synagogues: "Rabbi Johanan said: From the blessings of that wicked man you may learn his intentions: Thus he wished to curse them that they [the Israelites] should possess no synagogues or school houses - [this is deduced from] How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; that the Shechinah should not rest upon them - and your tabernacles, O Israel; that their kingdom should not endure" (b. Sanhedrin 105b). TheSforno suggests that the 'tents' are houses of study, while 'dwellings' are "the House of Assembly (prayer) and the Sanctuary of G-d, which are designated for His Name to dwell there and to accept the prayers of worshipers." This, the Sforno explains, "is not only for the benefit of those who are occupied in them, but they also bring good to the entire nation." The Tur observes that "there are six words in this verse, corresponding to the six Sanctuaries: Nob, Gibeon, Gilgal, Shiloh, and the first and second temples in Jerusalem."
Another significant thread is started by the ancient sages. The Mishnah rules that, "in a courtyard which he shares with others a man should not open a door facing another person's door nor a window facing another person's window" and the Gemarah asked where this rule is sourced. Rabbi Johanan answered, "From the verse of the Scripture, 'And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes.' This indicates that he saw that the doors of their tents did not exactly face one another, whereupon he exclaimed: 'Worthy are these that the Divine presence should rest upon them!'" (b. Bava Batra 60a). RabbiHirsch wants to explore what this means: "Balak asked [Balaam], 'How do you see the people - how do they stand regarding decency, regarding sexual morality.' The camp that he saw before him, he visualised with each child knowing his father, and houses and families and tribes grouped according to the paternal derivation - that is the yardstick by which sexual morality could be judged."
TheRamban says that the appellation "How good" refers "not only to the period of 'tents' (before they occupied the land) but also to that of 'dwellings' (after the conquest and apportionment of the land when their homes would be stable and secure). Israel's land would be full of good things, 'like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters do not fail' (Isaiah 58:11)." The vision of goodness is to endure; it is to remain a characteristic of G-d's people down through the ages. As Hirsch wrote, "How good, how greatly do your homes correspond to the moral ideal and the true wellbeing of a nation. They can be the temporary tents of wandering 'Ya'akov' or the stately mansions of 'Israel'. They are blessing-bringing brooks and even 'blessed gardens'. Every home and every family branch, like a brook, makes material, spiritual and moral welfare flow down to each succeeding generation and itself is a material, spiritual and moral blessed human-garden in any of its own contemporary periods. Each one in its own speciality is a brooklet running its particular course, but all these courses lead their achievements down to one common stream." Gunther Plaut comments that "the physical image of Israel is the reflection of its spiritual being."
So if the tents of G-d's people, the places where they dwell, are to continue as "how good", we need to ask the question today: how goodly are our dwelling places? What characteristics mark out either the physical homes of G-d's people or the dwellings - houses of study, prayer and worship - of His people in this day? Why would people be drawn to them - and us, the people who inhabit them - and what would they expect or not expect to find?
One of the most obvious answers is food. Having done student and adult ministry, and been involved in a number of outreach contexts and talked to others who work in this area, this has to be the number one draw. Living as we do in the Messianic Jewish world, we have the wonderful feast cycle, from Pesach to Sukkot, Shavuot to Hanukkah as the major feasts, plus the amazing and compelling Shabbat every week. Draw people around your table and be generous with the food. Kosher, of course, but lots of it and with many different and unusual (to most) Jewish recipes from around the world. Combine that with a simple liturgy or sets of blessings, red wine or grape juice, lighting candles and you'll be away. Don't over-push the religious stuff and they'll ask all the questions and more: why do you do this? What are you doing? How does this work? What does this mean to you? Where did that recipe come from? Can I do it too? Integrating meals and study is a key to developing deep friendships and real engagement with the texts; it was the most common way of sharing the gospel in the first few centuries of the early church.
Generosity in general is probably another obvious answer, but that doesn't necessarily mean giving money away. Instead, be generous and spontaneous with your time; just sit and listen to people as they talk and don't be in a hurry. Can you remember the last time you were really listened to, without interruption and with genuine interest? It's very rare these days; no cell 'phone or facebook distractions, just giving time and focus - it's a magnet! Try to remember faces and stories; revisit some of the conversations and ask how people are getting on - it shows that you care and were listening the first time. Give people time and space, without crowding them, asking anything of them, or rushing off to your next appointment.
Integrity and authenticity are two more important attributes. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't play at it and be consistent. Don't teach morality and have a little clutch of '18/R' DVDs on your shelf. Be honest about yourself and your life, without pretending to be something you aren't and can't be. Talk normally without adopting church or posh language. Don't talk about people behind their backs, even anonymously. Laugh and cry with people as they need it; always have a box of tissues handy! Be ready, as Rav Sh'aul wrote, "in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV). That means lots of patience, love, compassion and, where necessary, common sense and straight talking.
Learn to do these things well and your tent will be full with people queuing up outside! Your dwelling place will be goodly and the work of the kingdom will be accomplished!
Further Study: Psalm 1:1-3; Romans 12:14-16; Isaiah 49:8-11
Application: Are your tents goodly, attractive and welcoming - do people come and want to spend time with you? Perhaps a consultation with the Maître d'Hotel would give you some ideas of how He would like His place to look?
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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