by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel." [24:5]
As we know, Bilaam wanted to curse Israel, but G-d prevented him from doing
so - by putting blessings into his mouth instead. In the Talmud [Sanhedrin
105b], Rebbe Yochanon tells us that by carefully reading the blessings, we
can learn the curses which Bilaam wanted to deliver.
Bilaam wanted to curse Israel to deny them houses of prayer and study, but
HaShem forced him to say "how goodly are your tents" (as we learn in
Genesis where Yaakov is referred to as a "dweller in tents," this means he
sat constantly in the House of Study). Bilaam wanted to say that the Divine
Presence should not rest upon Israel, but he was forced to say "your
dwelling places, O Israel" (the word for "dwelling places" is Mishkanos,
from the root Mishkan, the Tabernacle - the place where the Divine Presence
rested). And in this vein Rebbe Yochanon analyzes the verses which follow
Rebbe Aba bar Kahana says in conclusion: "all of these reverted to curses,
with the exception of the blessing for Houses of Prayer and Study, as it
says [in Deuteronomy 23:6, that although Bilaam was hired to to curse]
'...and G-d reversed the curse to a blessing, for HaShem your L-rd loved
you' - curse, and not curses." All the other curses eventually came to
pass, as the Temple was destroyed and Israel was left without kings or
kingdom, but Houses of Prayer and Study are with us always.
Why is this true? Why was it that G-d preserved this blessing above all the
R. Shabsay Ben Meir HaKohen, author of the Sifsei Kohen commentary on the
Code of Jewish Law, says that as long as Israel has Houses of Prayer and
Study, makes requests and trusts HaShem to hear their prayers, and remains
devoted to Torah study, then the other curses are so limited as to be
"nothing." By reversing this one curse, HaShem prevents the others from
having terminal impact (Heaven forbid!). Torah study and prayer keep us
alive as a people.
What happens to peoples exiled from their lands, whose kings are dethroned?
They assimilate and disappear. Yet Israel is the exception. For Israel,
Torah study and prayer keep us alive, far more so than land or rulership.
(As we see so sadly in our own era, when we have our land but not study of
Torah, nothing prevents young Jews from moving to other countries and
disappearing from the Jewish community. Even in the Land of Israel, we need
the Torah of Israel.)
As we say in our prayers, "we will rejoice in the words of Your Torah and
your Mitzvos for all eternity, for they are our lives and the length of our
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Dedicated in loving memory of Chaya Freidel bas Shimon Pinchas, a"h.