I used to go to one of those shuls where everyone was in place 1 minute before the Shabbat morning service started. German influenced. Gotta love those Germans.
And when the service began it began with a terrific verse from this week’s Torah reading - Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaacov - How great are your tents o Jacob.
It’s not part of our liturgy here. Probably because we are just a little quiet at the very beginning of services. That’s a shame - because it’s a great verse.
The story is that Bilaam eventually arrives at the camp of the Israelites - the people of Jacob. He’s been paid to curse them and off he goes a-cursin’
But when he finally arrives he lifts up his eyes and sees Israel and he says this;
נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר
Thus spoke Bilaam, son of Beor, the saying of the man whose eyes have been opened
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב
How great are your tents o Jacob.
So what did he see that impressed him so deeply?
I want to share two possible understandings.
One motivated by a book, and one motivated by Rashi.
Let me start with the book.
I’ve been reading the scripts of the original masterpiece documentary television series, recently updated. You may have been watching Civilisations, presented by Simon Schama and others - but I’ve been taken with the original 1969 series Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark. I referred to it in my weekly words - I did say there would be a test.
The original Civilisation has been knocked in that revisionist way in which things get knocked, but it’s bursting with tremendously interesting ideas.
Clark opens his masterwork trying to understand what civilisation is. He stands on the bank of the Seine surrounded by stunning beautiful buildings and asks what differentiates the savage barbarian beauty prow of a marauding Viking ship from the beauty of the buildings of what he considers proper civilisation?
In a word he suggests the defining property of civilisation is ‘permanence.’
Wanderers and invaders, Clarke speculates, don’t look beyond the next meal or the next battle. And for that reason, he claims, it didn’t occur to them to build beautiful buildings, or write books.
A civilised person, says Clarke, must feel they belong somewhere specific in space and time. And for that purpose, he says, it’s a great convenience to be able to read and write.
It’s a shock, he says to realise how rare that gift was even in Medieval times. The great military general and Empower Charlemagne born in 742 learnt to read, we are told, but he could never write - too busy chasing the here and now to worry about recording anything for the forever.
Jews, on the other hand, have been big on writing, and reading, and learning, for a very long time. We feel we have an intimate connection to - if not place - then at least time. We play a transgeneration game where the quality of what we have is the quality of what we can pass on to the generations that follow.
So imagine this with me.
Bilaam is a man who is on the make, a mercenary purveyor of curses and blessings to whoever will line his palm with silver.
And when he sets off into the desert to the Israelite encampment he must be assuming he will encounter an Am Noded, a wandering, nomadic, peripatetic people without commitment to civilisation.
But when he looks out at them - at us - he sees something different.
He sees a commitment to permanence, a commitment to civilisation. I’ll get to what exactly that might look like a little later. But he sees something that strikes him as good - maybe it was our commitment to what Clark considers civilisation, a desire to create for a term longer than even our own lives, a relationship with permanence reflected even in how we set up camp in the wilderness all those years ago.
I don’t think it could have been the buildings - after all the Israelites are travelling - there would have been a beautiful sanctuary in the middle of the camp, but the tents, surely, would have just been tents, ramshackle Succot.
In fact the markers of Jewish civilisation have only rarely and only temporarily been buildings, and more rarely still been buildings as beautiful as this one.
Today is the 17th of Tammuz, the anniversary of the breaching of the walls of the Second Temple, the start of a religious journey reaches its nadir in three weeks time when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. We are marking the beginning of this journey tomorrow morning - Shacharit. In three weeks time - POSTER
The Jewish civilisation has had a mixed track record with buildings - they tend to get destroyed. But we have never given up on our commitment to permanence; to building for the future with not bricks and mortar, but through a Masorah - a religious and intellectual and emotional traditional to be passed down from one generation to the next. We’ve built our civilisation out of a relationship with the written word - the Torah, and the books and stories and narratives that have unfolded from it over so many years..
The Jewish civilisation has been built out of a commitment to pass something on to the generations to come.
We believe we can survive, we will survive even despite anything. We always have. Perhaps that’s how we have survived when the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Persians and the Romans and even the Nazis have fallen by the wayside. We’ve structured our camps for the forever.
We’ve always looked beyond the immediate.
We’ve always built for the future.
Enormously proud of our Cheder.
All upstairs learning, celebrating, building for our permanence.
Exactly as it should be.
Presenting prizes at end of service - hope you will share your support of how we are still building for our future.
Maybe what Bilaam saw is that marker of Jewish civilisation - permanence -in the construction of the Tents of Jacob.
But what, exactly would that look like?
That’s Rashi’s question
His comment is a little terse.
What was it that Bilaam saw that was good, asks Rashi?
על שראה פתחיהם שאינן מכוונין זה מול זה:
He saw that the tents weren’t set up to face into one another. It wasn’t possible for one person to look in at the tent of the other.
I had always understood Rashi to be claiming that our commitment to privacy was ‘Tovu’ the good thing Bilaam saw.
As if there was something particularly impressive about privacy.
Turns out I shouldn’t have underestimated Rashi.
Here’s the Midrash Rashi had in mind when he penned his commentary.
It’s from a late collection, Tanhuma Yilamdeinu;
‘Back in Egypt even though there were those who worshipped false gods, even still the people still observed prohibitions against adultery. And when they came out of Egypt they were Tzanuah - modest, each one in their own tent - so Reuven didn’t gaze out on the wife of Shimon and Shimon didn’t gaze out on the wife of Reuven. And even when there were 600,000 in the wilderness, this is how they did modesty. No-one placed the opening of their tent infront of the tent of their fellow. And when Bilaam looked out and saw Israel dwelling in her tribes - [this is what he praised.]
The point of the tents not facing one another is not to stop you looking in on me.
But to stop me looking in on you.
It’s an act of self control.
I know there is a gender critical read of the Midrash and, for the sake of stating the obvious let me clear that I’m not at all interested in the notion that a husband owns their wife, but let me let that go and instead take this as a Midrash which suggests that the thing that is good is the exercise of self control over peering salaciously and greedily at our fellows.
What Bilaam saw was not a nation of acquisitorial net-curtain twitchers, but a nation committed not to covet. The modesty here is a sense of security with what one has - I’m reminded of one of my favourite teachings in Pirkei Avot -
Eizeh Hu Ashir - who is rich - HaSameach B’Helko - the one who is happy with what they have.
It’s a much more moving understanding of the meaning of this much abused term - Tzanuah -
Bilaam is a man motivated by money.
He’s allowed money dangled before him to lead him astray.
And he turns up at the Israelite encampments to see a people who aren’t chasing after what they don’t have - certainly not chasing dishonest acquisition.
It’s a captivating image. What would it be to set up my tent in such a way to send out a sign that I’m happy with what I have - I’m Sameach b’Helki?
We could all do with sending out a message into this battered world that we are happy with what we have.
So two thoughts about the nature of what Bilaam saw that so moved him to utter that majestic verse - Mah Tovu Ohaelecha.
Perhaps he saw something about a commitment to permanence, a commitment not only to build a civilisation, but to pass that civilisation on from one generation to another. Perhaps he saw, in the arrangement of ‘Tzanuah’ modest, non acquisitorial, tents a commitment not to covet that which belongs to our fellow.
Maybe these two ideas are nothing other than alternate ways of expressing the same thing. The person who sees something and wants to grab it immediately is a person who lives in the moment. The person who lives with a sense of permanence wants to build something to pass on. They don’t hunger after their fellow’s possessions because they want to be part of a stable society that doesn’t descend into a dog-eat-dog free-for-all.
A desire to build a Jewish life for the future and a commitment to self restraint are perhaps the great markers of our Jewish life.
And they are indeed, great.