In this week’s parsha, Bilaam attempts to rain curses upon Bnei Yisrael, only to be frustrated each time, as G-d turns his curses into blessings. As Bilaam prepares for his third attempt at cursing the nation, the Torah tell us that he looks down upon the nation and sees Am Yisrael “shochein lishvatav”, “dwelling according to its tribes”. This sight moves Bilaam to pronounce his famous and beautiful blessing of “mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mish’kinosecha Yisrael”, “how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel”.
Rashi quotes a Gemara Bava Basra 60a that explains that what Bilaam noticed when he saw Am Yisrael “shochein lishvatav”, was that within the encampment, the entrances to the Jewish tents did not face each other. Instead, by design, the tents opened away from each other, to ensure that the Israelites would not be offered a glimpse into each other’s homes. Upon viewing this incredible display of privacy and tzniut, according to the Gemara, Bilaam decided that “such a community is worthy for G-d’s shechina to dwell within it.” He therefore proceeded to bestow a special blessing specifically upon their homes, represented by their “tents” and “dwelling places”.
The Gemara derives an important practical halacha from this entire episode as well. The Mishna there states that if two people share an open courtyard at the entrance to their homes, they may not have their doors or windows facing each other, to ensure that each family maintains appropriate privacy. The Gemara asks for the source of this halacha — and responds that the source is what Bilaam witnessed in this week’s parsha. The primacy that Am Yisrael gave to privacy during their years in the desert serves as a model for future generations in the setting up of our own communities and homes.
There is an incredibly profound and important message to be learned from this Gemara. Throughout this week’s parsha, we see Bilaam watch and witness the Israelite community in many different ways, and from many different angles. Yet, according to the Gemara, it was only when Bilaam witnessed the privacy and discretion maintained by Bnei Yisrael’s homes, that he was driven to declare the Jewish community worthy of G-d’s presence. It was davka this characteristic of privacy that led Bilaam to pronounce a most powerful blessing over the homes within which the Jewish people will dwell across the ages. The message seems clear- the foundation of every Jewish home is found in the private and intimate relationships created within the four walls of that home, and it is important that these family relationships are guarded and kept confidential in a most powerful way.
We live today in a world and society that is anything but private. The explosion of social media- and the social trends that it has generated-have created a reality whereby we are encouraged to post and share everything about ourselves and our lives with the entire world. While one could argue that such self-publicity is not healthy even on an individual basis, within the realm of relationships it is even more destructive. Interpersonal feelings and thoughts are healthier when they are shared solely within the private, personal sphere. The prevalent custom of couples choosing to declare their love for their spouses in public, communal spaces, detracts from both the quality of the message, and the power that such feelings could engender when expressed in a more private setting. While there is nothing wrong with a person expressing himself at times in the public sphere, we must remember that it’s specifically the effort we put into our personal relationships, and the time spent cultivating feelings of care and affection within the confines of our private lives and homes, that will ultimately determine the depth of connection created with our loved ones.
This message is crucial, particularly if we consider the age in which we are raising our children. Firstly, we must remember that more than anything, our relationships with our children will be built primarily by the private moments within the four walls of our home. How we act in the home, the environment that we create, how we speak to our children, and the personal time that we spend with them at home — are the foundational building blocks through which our children’s view of us, and relationship with us, will be built. Of course, family life unfolds outside the home- and within the context of a larger community- as well. However, the privacy of the home, and the ability to truly let down one’s guard within that private space, allows for a different level of closeness and intimacy to develop. We should never underestimate the power of those private moments.
We should also be wary of how much we allow others into the inner dynamics of our household, whether through social media posts or simply through schmoozing with friends. There are aspects of family life — and aspects of our children’s lives- that we must make sure to keep appropriately private.
And finally- as our children grow up in a world of unrestricted access to the lives of everyone around them, and are pushed to do the same as well, it is imperative that teach our children, and model for them, the proper balance. We need to help them realize that despite the pull to share and reveal, the power of the Jewish people, and the Jewish home, lies in our ability to maintain a crucial equilibrium- to live within the larger community, but to maintain the sanctity and sacredness of the private Jewish home. Bilaam, one of our arch-enemies, came to realize this power against his will- and today, more than ever, we have to fight to maintain privacy within our own homes.