Rabbi David Walk
Growing up in my Boston suburb of Malden I have memories of the park we used to play ball in. We called it the Dell Street park, even though it's real name is Roosevelt Park. However unlike many kids my memories of this park aren't of great athletic feats, no walk off homers or TD catches. I remember the injuries I sustained there. There was the time I got a baseball in the face breaking my glasses and cutting my nose, and then there was the ultra-thin, ultra sharp aluminum sheet from the nearby can company which cut my leg so badly that I needed thirteen stitches. Not the stuff of heroism. However there were also the fun times. I'd go with my Dad and sister to watch semi-pro fast pitch soft ball games under the lights in the waning summer twilights. But I also remember Temple Tifereth Israel next to the park. It was a large building made of light colored bricks, and a few times we ran away in fright when foul balls clanged off its imposing walls. I can still clearly see in my mind's eye the verse emblazoned across its façade: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel (Numbers 24:5).
There was a time when the only Biblical verses I knew were this one and Shema Yisroel. There's something appropriate about that, because the Talmud (Brachot 12b) suggests that we should recite the blessings of Bilaam daily as part of Shema. Although there's an argument about which of Bilaam's blessing the Talmud means. Most authorities agree that it should be this verse, because of another tradition that all of Bilaam's blessings will someday become curses except for this one.
So the verse on the temple wall is the most famous part of the blessings recited by the gentile prophet Bilaam over the Jews. The literal meaning of this praise of the Israelites in the desert seems to be that the encampment of the Jews looked impressive as compared to camps of other nomadic peoples. The tent arrangement by tribes which was laid out in a grid surrounding the portable temple must have been inspiring. This induced Bilaam to conclude that this beautiful arrangement of tents led to a wonderful dwelling area and neighborhood, and that's the second half of the verse. This straightforward explanation of the verse is just the beginning. Over the centuries our Sages have added many layers of more esoteric explanations. Rashi comments that the goodness came from the arranging of the tents so that no one could look into the tent of their neighbor. This provided a visible and admirable level of modesty to the Jewish community. The usually literal translation of Onkelos says that he was observing the land of Yaakov. So that this is a prophecy of how amazing the Land of Israel will be in some glorious future, perhaps in the time of King Solomon. The Kli Yakar comments that the word tents attests to the fact that the Jews were tent dwellers like Yaakov their ancestor, and in those tents they are studying Torah which protects them from any nefarious intent on the part of Bilaam and his benefactor, Balak.
But the most famous interpretation to the verse is that it refers to our houses of worship. Originally it meant the holy Temple in Jerusalem, and later our synagogues, which are called miniature temples. This last idea was powerfully brought home to me when I later went to some friends' bar mitzvoth at Temple Tifereth Israel. They impressively began their service by the cantor singing this verse while majestically striding down the main aisle of the sanctuary. When you added the accompaniment of the choir and organ it blew me away. All the more so for me, because by that time I had started going to my
Shul regularly and we started services with barely a minyan and the mumbling of the morning blessings. Only much later did I discover that there actually is a custom to recite that verse upon entering the room where we pray.
So, what is the implication of daily declaring that our places of worship are goodly? It's been said that this teaches us to cover our heads and not to enter with long knives or swords (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 151:6). This prohibition about visible weapons may come from the idea that our prayers lengthen life and these long blades are intended to shorten it. This emphasis on the length or visibility of the blade may come from the fact that the Gematria Ketana (arrived at by continuously adding the digits of the numbers derived from the letters until you have a single digit, in this case five) of aroch (long) and tovu are the same. Today many Israelis either cover weapons in shul or at least unload them. But I think that the implications are much more far reaching.
The Mishneh Brura (in the Biur Halacha) explains that the covering of the head is to eliminate kalot rosh (frivolity, disrespect). In another comment (#1 in section151), the Mishneh Brura explains that we must refrain from kalot rosh because our synagogues replace the Temple, and concerning that status the verse instructs us to be in awe of God's holy sites (Leviticus 19:30). He goes on to say that synagogues lose their sanctity as a result of disrespect within their confines. Besides that Biblical requirement, the Sages tell us not to pray except in a serious (koved rosh) attitude (Mishneh Berachot 5:1). How can we pray with seriousness if there is a lack of decorum all around us?
I ended up learning a lot from that temple next to my park. Besides learning this verse, I was always struck by the respect displayed by those in attendance, often in contrast to behavior in shuls. We regular shul goers have to remember that the word for goodly in our verse is tovu or his (or its) good. It's the good of God (or the location) which must be maintained in these sites, not our good time.
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