A Blessing for the Ages by Shaul Yaakov Morrison


In this week's Parashah, the Torah talks about Bilaam, a gentile prophet, who hired himself to kings to curse their enemies. Usually his curses were very effective; however, Hashem did not allow Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael. Instead, each time he set out to curse them, he blessed them.  One example of such a blessing is “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael” (BeMidbar 24:5). How is this blessing Bnei Yisrael? What is so great about the tents of Bnei Yisrael that distinguishes them as an aspect that Bilaam used to bless us? Additionally, why would we start Tefillah every morning by repeating these words which were said by an avaricious gentile, Bilaam? Surely this statement must have value to it, or we would start our Tefillah with one of the thousands of Pesukim said by Jews or Hashem!

Two important values are shown in this Pasuk.  Firstly, Bilaam praises Bnei Yisrael for keeping private things private.  Contrary to modern western culture where all dirty laundry is washed in public, the Torah’s attitude is that not everything is for public knowledge. When everything private becomes public knowledge, it violates the goodness of the tents of Yaakov. The less people know about their neighbors’ private business, the less Lashon HaRa they can possibly tell about them. Bnei Yisrael at the time wanted to avoid Lashon HaRa, so they deliberately kept distances and set up tents for that reason.

Secondly, we see that Bnei Yisrael voluntarily situated their tents such that they should not see into their neighbors’ tents and become jealous of their possessions.  This shows how well Bnei Yisrael kept the commandment not to covet a neighbor’s property. They wanted so much to distance themselves from potentially violating it; they turned their tents away from each others’ creating a Geder, fence.  Additionally, by distancing themselves from their neighbors’ property, they made a demonstrative statement that they didn’t care about peer pressure and the possessions of their neighbors, allowing them to spend more time on God-related matters as the social pressures were off.

That is why this is such a blessing, and why we say this Pasuk every morning. It behooves us to emulate these attributes to be very careful not to tell Lashon HaRa or covet our neighbor’s money.  This may be the reason that we begin Tefillah each morning with this Pasuk.  We start Tefillah by mentioning the commandments that the Jews of the desert were so careful to keep, so that in the merit of the guarding of these commandments, Hashem will answer our prayers.

Curses of Bilaam by Shmuly Reece

Make Up Your Mind: Is it a Chok or a Mishpat? by Marc Poleyeff