Judaism: Ohr Torah on Balak: Descendants of Amalek
“How goodly are your tent-homes, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5)
At the conclusion of the Pentateuch, which is also the conclusion of Moses’ physical existence on earth, the Biblical text records that, “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew ‘face to face’” (Deut. 34:10). Our sages comment, “Never did such a prophet arise among the Israelites, but among the nations of the world such a prophet did arise- Balaam son of Beor” (Yalkut Shimoni 966 ad loc). This stunning statement indicates that Balaam was not only gifted with the Divine prophecy, but that he could even be compared to Moses! And if the task of the prophet is to communicate God’s words to the people, we must take seriously the words of Balaam the prophet and learn from them.
Indeed, in synagogues throughout the world for thousands of years, daily prayers begin with the words of Balaam, “How goodly are your tent-homes, O Jacob, your Sanctuary – Study Halls, O Israel.” Apparently, Balaam himself was inspired when “he saw the Israelites dwelling according to their tribes” (ibid. 24:2); Rashi, our classical commentary, explains that Balaam was especially moved by the modesty of their family lives, “that the doors and windows of the respective homes did not face each other.” And the Israelites brought the unique quality of their family life, the sanctity of their homes, into their national institutions: our Temple is a Beit HaMidrash, a home of sanctity, our synagogue a Beit Hakneset, a home of “gathering” for prayer and festival celebrations (national togetherness), our study-hall, a beit hamidrash, a home of academic analysis. What is it about the familial home which makes it so cardinal to Jewish life? What has the familial home to do with our national institutions?
I write these lines at a time when, in Western society, the family as an institution is severely embattled, when many family gatherings feature “his” children, “her” children, and “their” children, when more and more couples are opting to have no children and when more and more individuals are opting not to get married at all! And I write these lines as an ode to Jewish love and Jewish family, in tribute to my beloved wife.
Why family? It’s an institution which limits one’s choice in sexual partners, and produces children who require much time, energy and expenditure and often give back heart-ache (as one European professor said, we have a minus zero population growth because we cannot abide anything that makes noise and dirt and we cannot control).
One of God’s earliest judgment calls, immediately before the creation of Eve is “It is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). “Alone” means first of all, social loneliness; the human being, endowed with a portion of God from on high, has the ability and the fundamental need to reach out beyond himself to “other’ in communication and love (Gen. 2:7, Targum ad loc). And “alone” also means existential alone-ness, our being limited to our own circumscribed individual bodies, and our mortal dread of the time when that individual entity which is “me” will cease to be.
And why children? Balaam sees that ultimately Israel will triumph; our compassionate righteousness will triumph over Amalek’s cruel grab for power (Num. 24:17-20). Balaam prophesies, “I see from the beginnings of the rocky mountains, and I look from the hilly plains” (ibid. 23:9), which Rashi interprets, “I see your origins and roots firmly entrenched in your matriarchs and patriarchs.”
God charged Abraham to become a great nation and a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:3); Abraham will command his children and household (historic family) to do compassionate righteousness (ibid. 18:18-19), with each Israelite generation commanding the next until we finally succeed when all the nations accept a God of morality and peace (Isa. 2:2-4). We receive our identity and mission from our forbears, and remain optimistic and hopeful because of our progeny.
We are deeply rooted in our past and highly responsible for our future; we are each a golden link in an eternal chain of being; we are each a crucial part of the great Unfinished Symphony which is Israel. All past generations live in us; we live in all future generation. The Yiddish word for grandchild is ein’i’kel, a combination of two Hebrew words, ein kul, there is no destruction! We are our grand-children, and our grand-children are us.
In Jewish love and marriage and children, we give ourselves to our life-partners, we give ourselves to our past and to our future, and what we receive is God’s promise that Israel the nation will never be destroyed, the great merit of participating in the historic mission to perfect the world. Our God-given task is to pass on the baton to our children, our students, and to people we may touch along the way. And our synagogues, our learning academies and even our Holy Temple are passing down those traditions which emanated from the House of Abraham and Israel, which our forbears bequeathed to the children of Israel, and which we know contains the road-map to a future redeemed.