In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Balak, the prophet Balaam is commanded to curse the People of Israel. But, when he looks out and sees the people, he cannot but help utter a blessing instead. He praises the people (Num. 24:5), “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your encampments, Israel/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.” This blessing is a little cryptic. Normally, when I receive a blessing, I prefer it to be clear, and there is a tradition of making sure that when giving blessings (for example, as the bride and groom do on their wedding day) that it should be specific.
The Ben Ish Hai* explains (Parshat Balak Yr. 2) the blessing by way of the verse from Psalms (84:8), “They go from strength to strength/יֵלְכוּ מֵחַיִל אֶל-חָיִל.” He teaches that a wise person sits during the day and studies Torah in the House of Study/Beit Midrash, which is called the tent/ohel/אוהל of Torah. However, the homes in which we live should also be made holy through the words of Torah heard in them. This is the meaning of going “from strength to strength.” When we are blessed, “How goodly are your tents Jacob/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב,” these are the Houses of Study/Batei Midrashot that are filled with Torah. And the end of the blessing, “your encampments, Israel/מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל,” refers to the houses that we dwell (she’shochnim/ששוכנים) within.
This blessing, in its essence, according to the Ben Ish Hai, is a challenge. What we might see as specifically religious spaces should have an important role in our lives. We should be spending time learning Torah and praying in our houses of study and prayer. And it cannot stop there. We must take it home with us. There is no saying, “what happens in shul stays in shul.” This bracha/blessing reminds us that only part of our work/avodah/עבודה can be done at the synagogue.
As children, we had to participate in show and tell. The goal was to bring our home lives into the classroom and let our peers know us a little better, for who we are. Of course, equally as important, was that moment when you got home from school, when your parent asked you, “what did you learn in school today?”, or “did you ask any good questions today?”
The same is true for our religious lives as adults. It is deeply important to bring your whole self into the holy spaces that we are creating together. It helps us see each other and allows for deeper connections. And, it is also equally important to figure out a way to take it with you when you leave. This week, let us take this bracha seriously and try to take home an element of study or ritual or spiritual practice home with us. May every space we walk into be strengthened by the holiness of God and Torah that we carry in our minds, hearts and actions.
*Yosef Chaim (1 September 1835 – 30 August 1909) (Iraqi Hebrew: Yoseph Ḥayyim; Hebrew: יוסף חיים מבגדאד) was a leading Iraqi hakham (Sephardi Rabbi), authority on halakha (Jewish law), and Master Kabbalist. He is best known as author of the work on Halakha Ben Ish Ḥai (בן איש חי) ("Son of Man (who) Lives"), a collection of the laws of everyday life interspersed with mystical insights and customs, addressed to the masses and arranged by the weekly Torah portion.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.