When the Tents of Jacob aren’t beautiful: Fighting domestic abuse

In our Torah portion, Balak, is the famous blessing from the prophet Bil’am on the Jewish people's homes. But what if it is not the reality?

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander ,

Flash 90

What can we do to help a loved one, a friend, or a neighbor for whom venturing outside during this pandemic can mean risking their life, but for whom being at home presents an even more imminent danger?

Tragically, over the past few months of COVID-19, even those homes which were not infected with the coronavirus have become threatened by a different kind of pandemic: domestic abuse.

How heartbreakingly sad. What can WE do about this?

In our Torah portion, Balak, we find the famous blessing from the prophet Bil’am to the Jewish people :

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael” – How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel

And the Midrash, cited by Rashi in his commentary on the Torah, explains that Bil’am is referring to the beautiful atmosphere of the Jewish home.

But what about when that reality is far from the ideal, and the atmosphere in the home is toxic and dangerous?

It’s true that the Midrash states that the Israelites’ tents in the desert encampment were arranged in such a way that one could not see into the entrance of one’s neighbor.

This may lead us to think that what happens behind closed doors is none of our business.

And maybe that’s true.

However, in an instance when you know that domestic violence is taking place in that discrete tent, it is our halachic obligation to speak up for those inside who cannot.

First, let’s find a way to meet with the person who we suspect is being abused and let them know that there are professional organizations that can help them.

Share with them the best ways to get help, and make sure to follow up.

There are websites, on the screen, that can be used to help those.

Don’t suggest that “It’ll all be OK”, or, “Perhaps the person had a bad day”.

Instead, be their friend and help them connect with qualified professionals and organizations that do work on behalf of abused spouses and children.

I would like to also address the person feeling rage.

If you are feeling rage during this very trying time that could lead to actions inconsistent with the ideal of “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov”, please, for your sake, for the sake of your loved ones, seek the help that you and your family deserve!

Even if it is on Shabbat and you are feeling uncontrollable rage, Jewish Law demands that you immediately seek whatever help you can – including calling a hotline, or seeking help online.

Again, on the screen are two organizations that can be helpful.

Mark Twain once wrote about the Jew comparing him to all other peoples of the world, and I quote:

“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

We have always known the answer to Twain’s question – it is the Jewish home.

We pray that the atmosphere in our homes is safe and healthy for everyone inside.

But prayer is not enough – when it is unhealthy and dangerous, we must work to make it right.

With God’s help, we will summon the strength and the courage to actualize the blessing of

“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael”

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone (www.ots.org.il), an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He was formerly Vice President of Yeshiva University for University and Community Life and before that, Dean of the David Mitzner Dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.