In this week’s reading, the gentile prophet Bila’am famously tries to curse the Jews, only to bless them each time. The Torah says, “and Bila’am lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes, and the Spirit of G-d came upon him… [and he said] How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel” [24:2, 5].
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) asks what it was that Bila’am saw that was so praiseworthy. He answers: Bila’am observed that their entryways were not aligned with each other. Their tents were set up so that neighbors couldn’t see in, so that each family had privacy.
Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky says, so, excellent. This is what we have window blinds for today, right? We don’t want people to see us eating dinner. And even in the desert, Israel set up their tents to avoid that.
But that’s not actually correct. What does Rashi say? “He saw that their entryways were not aligned with each other, in order that one person not peek into the tent of his friend.” Each person didn’t set up his tent so that other people couldn’t see him, but in order that he be unable to see into the tents of others!
Rabbi Galinsky explains that the way they built their tents expressed an attitude of disinterest in what another person had. “What is going on with someone else doesn’t concern me. I don’t want to know what is happening in his house. I live my life, and he lives his life. I don’t want to impress him; I don’t want to compare myself to him or be jealous of him. Let him have what is his, and what is mine be mine.” And then the rabbi concludes: “These are blessed lives, and even Bila’am could not curse them!”
As you would expect, he goes on to talk about our situation today. Everything is about “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s all about comparing ourselves and competing with others. If my neighbor has one hundred, I want two hundred. It’s not about whether you need a new car, but whether someone else on the block has a new car.
The Chapters of the Fathers [4:1] quotes Ben Zoma: “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.” H’ gives to each person all of his needs. So why should we be jealous of the fortune of others?
And there is more than that. I recall recently hearing that an Indian teacher (name forgotten) said, “there are some people so poor, that all they have is money.” It is an incredible lesson. Our loved ones are worth more to us than any possessions. No one actually wants another person’s situation, so why try to duplicate his money?
If we learn to live like Ben Zoma advises us, then “these are blessed lives, that even Bila’am could not curse!”