Mah tovu ohalecha Yakov mishkenotecha Yisrael
How fair are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwelling places, O Israel
Parshat Balak provides us with one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah. It is the basis for the first prayer that many of us learned in yeshiva or Hebrew School. In many congregations, it remains the prayer often said first upon entering the synagogue.
Balak, the king of Moab, fears the large Israelite nation approaching his borders. He is aware of the military victories that they achieved in previous battles. Hoping to avert similar disaster, he seeks out Balaam, a seer with the power to both bless and curse, and asks him to curse Israel. The great drama in the parshah is whether he will or will not do what Balak asks.
Ultimately, and I might add, fortunately, Balaam does not curse Israel at all. In fact, when it is his turn to offer his imprecation he does the opposite. He looks out into the Israelite camp, and blesses them. Balak, angry at this betrayal, takes him to another vantage point, to perhaps gain a perspective that would help him provide the curse that Balak wants, yet again Balaam blesses Israel. Enraged, Balak takes Balaam to a third location. At this point the Torah tells us that “the spirit of God came upon him.” (Numbers 24:2). And in the course of this third blessing offers the very words which I referred to at the beginning of this column.
How fair are your tents O Jacob
Your dwelling places, O Israel
What was it that made Israel as observed worthy of such a blessing? The most famous answer is that given in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 60a), which teaches that Balaam observed that the Israelites arranged their homes in such a way that no door or window of one home directly faced the doors and windows of another home. No one had to fear that their neighbors were observing them while they were conducting their private affairs in their own home. Through this rabbinic legend, our rabbis and sages were trying to teach us about the importance of privacy. This teaching reminds us that we need a place where we can do things and even say things which would not necessarily be as acceptable if we were to conduct those same actions or conversations in the public realm.
They similarly offer a Jewish legal view that is at great variance with the prevailing norms of American culture. It is not only the individual that must take precautions to guard their privacy, but the responsibility of the larger community to assist in this effort as well. Even an individual’s careless or cavalier attitude toward their own privacy does not free their family members, neighbors, or larger community from nonetheless respecting the boundaries that need to exist, and that we abandon at our own peril.
Privacy has been a Jewish concern for thousands of years. Our sages would be horrified not only by the willful invasion of privacy so common in American society (and especially in our time, made far easier by all sorts of technology designed specifically to do so) but also how easily we throw our privacy away. A quick internet search will provide links to thousands of websites revealing all sorts of personal information as well as private pictures of famous people. And it is wrong. Photographers literally endanger themselves and the public at large trying to get that picture of a movie star on vacation, or that musician with their children. These websites and gossip magazines exist, and photographers and journalists publish this garbage, because the American public demands it. After all, for a generation now we have been taught that we are entitled to it. Our Torah begs to differ. Such private information is simply not for us to view, no matter how fun or scandalous it might be. That we find it interesting is not legally significant from the point of view of Jewish law, making our rabbis’ understanding of Balaam’s blessing is as important today as it ever was. Maybe more so.
Certainly reasonable intrusions on personal privacy are also part of the discussion. We live in a time of elevated security concerns, and must at times sacrifice some privacy for the sake of national security. How much so is one of the great legal and moral questions of our time. The recent attempts of the FBI to gain access to the iPhone of the perpetrators of the horrendous terrorist incident in San Bernardino last December, and Apple Corporation’s public opposition to it was an excellent example of the important values and concerns the issue of privacy raises, and the hard choices that must be made. Like innocence, privacy, once lost, is not easily regained.
This column does not allow for full exploration of the issue of privacy and its importance in Jewish law and lore. But let us understand exactly how our rabbis understood Balaam’s blessing. Respect for privacy is important, beautiful, and bestows blessings upon the individuals and communities that safeguard it.