Undoubtedly the most famous words of praise spoken by Bilam of Benei Yisrael is his proclamation, “Ma tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael” – “How good are your tents, O Yaakov; your residences, O Israel” (24:5). Chazal offer several different interpretations of this verse, one of which appears in a halakhic context. In Masekhet Bava Batra (60a), the Gemara explains that Bilam saw that Benei Yisrael arranged the doors to their tents in such a way that families could not see into each other’s homes. His expression of admiration for this practice forms the basis of the halakha forbidding neighbors from having their windows or doors facing one another. A second interpretation, which appears in Masekhet Sanhedrin (105b), is that Bilam here prophetically praised Benei Yisrael for their synagogues and study halls where they would gather to pray and to learn Torah. (This interpretation forms the basis of the custom followed by many to recite this verse upon entering the synagogue for Shacharit each morning.)
Significantly, these two interpretations reflect two opposite, but certainly not contradictory, admirable qualities of Benei Yisrael. The first relates to privacy and distinctiveness, how families live private, independent lives without peering into one another’s affairs. The ideal of “Ma tovu ohalekha” according to this explanation is one of individualism and separateness, of distinct family units conducting their private affairs in their own way, as suits them, without looking at what other people are doing or worrying about people looking at them. The second, by contrast, speaks of the greatness of the large institutions, the houses of worship and learning where large crowds of different kinds of people come to pray and study together. According to this interpretation, Bilam praises not the people’s separateness, but rather their ability to join together in the devoted service of the Almighty.
It is perhaps the combination of these two interpretations that poses the greatest challenge for us, and which, when achieved, becomes the greatest source of praise. We are to serve the Almighty both individually and collectively, by forging our own independent identities while still bonding together with our fellow Jews for joint prayer and study. Bilam’s blessing to us is that we should succeed in maintaining this delicate and difficult balance between distinctiveness and unity, living separate from one another but also joining together to form cohesive communities and to work as a single nation. The blessing of unity is not achieved by everybody following the precise same lifestyle and doing the precise same things. To the contrary, unity is achieved when people whose tents do not face one another, who live separate and apart from one other and conduct lives that are very different from another, join together in joy and harmony in the devoted service of God. This might be the true meaning of “Ma tovu ohalekha Yaakov” – success in maintaining both our individual identities as well as our unity and collective devotion to Torah.
(Based on an article by Rav Yehoshua Pfeffer)