How Good Are Your Tents!
In our parasha we are introduced to Bil’am, a famous non-Israelite prophet, who “hears the utterances of God and knows the thoughts of the Most High” (Numbers 24:16). He is hired to use his special spiritual powers to curse Israel, and indeed he tries to do so, but God intervenes and forces him to bless Israel instead of cursing them.
Some may be surprised that there would be such a thing as a non-Jewish prophet who enjoys such a close relationship with God. If only the most spiritual people achieve prophecy, and if Judaism is the best route for one to achieve spiritual excellence, how could a non-Jewish person be a prophet when so many Jews never merit to be one?
Herein lies one very beautiful part of Jewish belief. We definitely ought to be proud of our Judaism. We definitely ought to feel confident that it blesses us in so many ways. But it doesn’t mean that ours is the only path to excellence, or that you have to be of a certain lineage or a member of a certain group in order to connect with God. The prophet Elijah himself is quoted as saying, “I call upon Heaven and Earth to testify to this: Whether an Israelite or a gentile, a man or a woman, a male or a female servant – the spirit of holiness rests upon them in accordance with the actions they choose to do – and nothing else.” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba ch. 9)
What is even more interesting, though, is that Bil’am’s actions are rather horrifying: attempting again and again to curse Israel, even attempting to get God to relent and allow him to curse, mistreating his donkey, and more. And yet with those actions, he has received prophecy!
We ought to learn from this humility. People are complex individuals. The part which we encounter is not the whole of them. Some bad choices do not make bad people; we never know how they behave in other situations. We must protect ourselves diligently, but leave the judging up to God, the only One who can see everything.
The words of Bil’am’s eventual blessing are “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov” – “how good are your tents, Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). Our rabbis taught that Bil’am was impressed that they were careful to arrange their tents in a staggered manner so that when someone opened their tent door they wouldn’t accidentally see into the open door of their neighbour’s tent. This virtue must be implemented in all walks of life: concentrating on our own improvement while holding space for others to take care of themselves in their own ways and in their own times.