20 Av 5781 / Thursday, July 29, 2021 | Torah Reading: Eikev
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Balak: The Tents of Jacob    

Balak: The Tents of Jacob

Jewish women in the desert could take ritual baths, bear children, and nurse babies without infringing on the sanctity of modesty which so characterizes our people.


Parshat Balak


Incited by fear and jealousy, the Moabite King Balak hired the Midianite magician Bilam to curse the Jewish people. In spite of having applied the most contemporary sorts of magic at the most favorable hours, Bilam was unable to curse Israel. No evil can invade a people dwelling in holiness and chastity.   “Bilam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of Hashem was upon him” (Bamidbar 24:2). When Bilam saw how the entrances of the tents of each family were facing away from each other, so that no one could peer into the neighbor's tent, he made up his mind to refrain from cursing them (Rashi, Bamidbar 24:5). Their modesty was so totally foreign to the customs of the gentiles that it absolutely fascinated Bilam, to the extent that he could not hold himself back from exclaiming: “How goodly are your tents, O Ya’acov, and your dwellings, O Israel!” (Bamidbar 24:5). The woman personifies the tent, which served as the home for the Jewish people during their wandering in the wilderness. Likewise the name Ya’acov refers to the Jewish women (See Rashi, Shemot 19:3).
Just imagine how difficult it must have been to preserve a standard of modesty during extended traveling in the wilderness. Privacy is scarce in the cramped conditions of the tent. It took great wisdom for the Jewish women of the tent to guard the modesty and sanctity of her family, even under the almost impossible conditions of the camp. It was due to their creative powers that women could take ritual baths, bear children, nurse babies, and tend to hygiene without infringing on the sanctity of modesty which so characterizes the Jewish people. This modesty, like a hedge of pure white roses surrounding the camp, protected Israel from the invasion of any external evil, from even the most cunning sorcery. Bilam, however, in his shrewdness, understood the secret of Jewish survival. He discerned that only by making a breach in the hedge of purity surrounding the camp of Israel, would their downfall be near. Therefore, he conspired a plot to arouse the Jewish men with seductive gentile beauties.
Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moav” (Bamidbar 25:1). Rashi informs us that this was by the advice of Bilam. Mizrachi explains that if it wasn't for Bilam's scheme, the Jews would not suddenly succumb to illicit sexual relations, after having withstood such temptation during the entire Egyptian exile. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch notes that the Jewish people never ever committed harlotry beforehand, as it states “A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride” (Song of Songs 4:12), -this refers to the men. “A spring shut up, a fountain sealed” (ibid.), -this refers to the young women. Likewise, Midrash Tanchuma states that during the entire two hundred and ten years of the Egyptian exile, as well as the following forty years of the wandering in the wilderness only one Jewish woman had intimate relations with a gentile. Therefore, Scripture singled her out as it states, “The son of a Yisraelite woman, whose father was a Mitzrian man, went out...” (Vayikra 24:10)
…and the people began to commit whoredom… The Hebrew word used here for began is “Vayachel” which is related to the word “chol” (profane). By engaging in prohibited sexual relations, the Jewish men profaned their distinctive holiness. At first, they did not intend to worship idols at all, but only to have sex with the gentile women. However, through the illicit sexual relations, they were urged on to commit idolatry as well. This is exactly what Scripture warned against, when it forbade intermarriage, as it states, “you take from their daughters to your sons, and their daughters play the harlot after their gods, and make your sons play the harlot after their gods” (Shemot 34:16). Sexual chastity, therefore, protects the Jewish people from every negative influence. As long as the men of Israel were under the faithful shield of their Jewish women, -the guardians of the goodly tents of Ya’acov, no evil could befall them. However, as soon as they left their tents, to go astray after strange women, they made themselves vulnerable to every conceivable sin, including idol worship. When the protective shield of the tent was breached in this way, B'nei Yisrael (the sons of Israel) became victims to the curse of antisemitism, and twenty four thousand people lost their lives. Here, again, is an example of how the survival of Israel depends on the merit of the Jewish women.
(Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum is Director of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion. This article is an excerpt from her book Women at the Crossroads: A Woman’s Perspective on the Weekly Torah Portion, reviewed by The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Press, Voices Magazine, Good Reads, Wordpress/JewishPress and more. To order this book, click here)

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