מה טובו אוהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל (במדבר כד:ה)

How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael (24:5).

What exactly are “the tents of Ya’akov” and “the dwelling places (משכנות) of Yisrael”?  Many answers have been given to this question.  Rashi (based on Chazal) explains that they refer to the tents and houses of the Jewish people, which are characterized by tzni’ut (modesty) and kedushah (holiness).  Alternatively, he says that they refer to the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash, even in their state of ruin.  Others say that the verse is talking about the synagogues and study halls of the Jewish people.  The Malbim, however, suggests a very different and novel interpretation:

An ohel is a temporary tent, while a mishkan is permanent.  In the desert, the Jews dwelled in tents, but at this point they were prepared to enter the Land and dwell in permanent dwellings.  Bil’am saw all of this and said, How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, referring to the tents of the desert.  Then he said, How goodly are your dwelling places, O Yisrael, in reference to the fact that they were willing to dwell in permanent dwellings in Eretz Yisrael.  The name Yisrael is greater than the name Ya’akov.  [This teaches] that when they enter the Land they will be on a higher level and will be called by the name Yisrael.

The Malbim continues this theme in his explanation of the next verse:  – Like brooks that stretch out, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars by the water:

In reference to the “tents of Ya’akov” it says, Like brooks that stretch out, for the waters of a brook [eventually] cease to flow…  Similarly, the Jews wandered from place to place in the desert.  Rivers, however, are permanent; they always flow.  This refers to the “dwelling places of Yisrael” [in Eretz Yisrael], which will be permanent – Like gardens by a river, which continuously flows.

Then, once again, it says in reference to the “tents of Ya’akov,” Like aloes planted by the Lord.  [Aloes] are fragrant herbs.  The tents of the desert were like aloe plants and other fragrant herbs that sprout, then wither, and then are replaced by others.  So too, the Jews’ “plantings” [in the desert] were not permanent or deeply rooted.  In contrast, “Your dwelling places, O Israel” – in Eretz Yisrael – are like cedars by the water.   Cedar trees are permanent; they last thousands of years.

The analogy of the brook [and the river] signifies the abundance they receive from HaShem, which [flows] like water.  In Eretz Yisrael it will never cease.  And the analogy of the aloes and the cedars signifies the Nation itself, its stability and strength [which is greater in Eretz Yisrael, as explained above].

The message is obvious:  The Land of Israel is our only true and permanent dwelling place.  All other places are just way stations on our journey back home.  All Jewish communities outside the Land eventually wither away.  What is left (Jewishly) of places like Pumpedita, Spain, Worms, Warsaw, Lublin, Yemen, Morocco, Newark, Brownsville (the list goes on)?  They are all JudenreinEretz Yisrael, in contrast, has always and will always be a central part of our national conscience.  Even when we were exiled from the Land, we never lost sight of where we truly belonged.  Two thousand years of exile, however, have weakened our collective memory and have made some Jews think that America is their permanent (or at least semi-permanent) dwelling place.  The time has come to set the record straight and educate Diaspora Jews to realize that our only true Homeland is in the Middle East, not the east (or west) coast.

And for those Jews who already know all of this (at least on a theoretical level), but choose to remain in the lands of exile and occupy the spiritual “tents and dwellings” that these lands have to offer:  Don’t forget that Eretz Yisrael has a few “tents” of its own.  There are probably more shuls and batei midrash in Jerusalem or B’nei Brak than there are in the entire Diaspora.  Eretz Yisrael has become the undisputed center of Torah study for the first time in two millennia.  How can we just ignore that fact and remain satisfied with the spirituality of Chutz LaAretz?  Don’t Chazal say, “There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael” (BeReishit Rabbah 16:4)?  Didn’t the Malbim say, “When they enter the Land they will be on a higher level and will be called by the name Yisrael”?

May we soon see the fulfillment of Chazal’s statement “The synagogues and study halls of Babylonia will eventually be transplanted to Eretz Yisrael” (Megillah 29a).



Who has counted the dust of Ya’akov… (23:10)


Rashi comments: “…Countless are the commandments that they observe in connection with the dust:  Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together (Devarim 22:10); Do not plant your field with mixed seed (VaYikra 19:19); the ashes of the red heifer; the dirt [placed in the waters drunken by a] Sotah; and similar [mitzvot].”

Rashi’s source is BeMidbar Rabbah (20:19), where one more example is given: For three years they [the fruits of the trees] shall be forbidden [Orlah] to you (VaYikra 19:23).  Most commentators of the Midrash explain that Bil’am was praising the Jews (against his will) for observing even the “small” or less significant mitzvot (hence the allusion to dust), inferring that they certainly fulfill the “big” ones.  However, one commentator (Eshed HaNechalim) gives an alternative explanation: “The mitzvot that [the Jews] perform in connection with dirt, which is the foundation of the earth, serve as a merit on their behalf to [be able to] dwell in the Land and [benefit from] this world.”

I believe that the author of Shem MiShmuel, R. Shmuel of Sochotchov, agrees with this interpretation and provides a rationale for it.  Adding a Chassidic dimension to the Midrash, he explains that Balak and Bil’am wanted to inextricably separate the physical from the spiritual, precluding any possibility of sanctifying the mundane.  They hoped to inherit the material side of this world and leave the spiritual side for the Jews, allowing them to dwell under the Clouds of Glory and eat manna forevermore.  This is the meaning of Balak’s statement  – I will…drive it [the nation] away from the land (22:6).  That is, I will detach it from the physical world.  This, explains the Shem MiShmuel, goes against God’s entire purpose of creation, which is to elevate the physical world to a higher plane.  They wanted to implant the forces of evil into everything physical, so that the Jews could no longer rise to lofty spiritual heights by sanctifying the mundane.

God’s reaction to this scheme was to tell Balak, through Bil’am, Who has counted the dust of Ya’akov?  I.e., look at all the mitzvot they observe in connection with dust, thereby sanctifying even the most mundane substance on earth.

In this context, the Shem MiShmuel also quotes a Midrash which states that all that Balak and Bil’am wanted to do was prevent the Jews from entering the Land.  This is actually stated quite clearly in the Torah:  Balak said to Bil’am,  – Please come and curse this nation for me, for it is too mighty for me; perhaps I will be able to smite it and drive it away from the Land(22:6)?  Furthermore, Rashi comments on the verse   – God is not a man that He should lie (23:19): “He already promised that He would bring them to the Land of the seven nations and conquer it for them; and you think that you can murder them in the desert?”  These two evildoers understood that in order for their plan to work, they needed to prevent the Jews from entering Eretz Yisrael.  After all, the main reason God wanted to bring the Jews into the Land was to provide them with an optimal environment in which to sanctify the physical.

According to this, when Bil’am told Balak (in God’s name), “Countless are the commandments that they observe in connection with the dust,” he was in effect saying, “You want me to stop them from entering the Land?  I can’t!  Just look at all the mitzvot they are going to observe there.”  Perhaps this is why the Torah, and subsequently the Midrash, chose “dust-related” mitzvot as opposed to other material precepts, for most mitzvot connected to the ground depend on the Land of Israel.  Even the examples given in the Midrash are almost exclusively Land-related mitzvot.  (Even Orlah, which applies all over the world, has a special connection to the Land – see Parashat Kedoshim, “Working the Land.”)

The lesson is clear.  Our goal in life must be to imbue holiness into everything we do, even the most mundane and physical acts.  And there is no place in this world better suited for this lofty goal than God’s Chosen Land, where every clod of dirt, every blade of grass is saturated with both actual and potential sanctity.  May we be zocheh to live up to this challenge and thus be worthy of Divine protection from the likes of Balak and Bil’am.



Ø May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his (23:10).

The Prophets refer to the Book of Genesis as Sefer HaYashar (the Book of the Upright), as it says in Tractate Avodah Zarah 25a…  R. Yochanan explains, “This is the Book of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, who are called ‘upright,’ as it says, May my soul die the death of the upright.”  We must understand why Bil’am called our forefathers specifically “upright,” and not “righteous” or “pious”…

The Torah says in the Song of Ha’azinu,  – The Rock, perfect is His work… righteous and upright is He (Devarim 32:4).  It is clear that the complimentary word “upright” is meant to justify HaShem for destroying the Second Temple, which stood in a perverse and crooked generation – (ibid. 32:5).  We explained [there] that the people of that generation were righteous and pious, and they studied Torah diligently.  However, they were far from upright in their societal behavior.  Thus, since they hated one another for no reason, they suspected anyone who acted contrary to their understanding of religious devotion of being a Sadducee and a heretic.  This led to wanton murder and all forms of evil, until the Temple was destroyed.  This is the reason for the justification [in Parashat Ha’azinu], for the Holy One Blessed be He is upright, and He cannot tolerate such “tzaddikim.”  Rather, [He loves people who] follow the path of virtue (lit., “the straight path”) when dealing with other people.  [He despises when people act] in a crooked manner, even if they do so for the sake of Heaven, for this destroys the world and undermines the settlement of the Land.

This is why the Patriarchs were so praiseworthy, for besides being as righteous and pious as possible and loving HaShem to the utmost, they were upright.  That is, they dealt with the nations of the world, even despicable idolaters, with love, [always] caring about their well-being…

Therefore, when Bil’am received Divine Inspiration, he could not be astounded by his evil deeds – by the fact that he was not as righteous and pious as Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov – because he was a gentile prophet and his head was rooted in impurity.  Rather, he was astounded by his evil conduct towards others.  Even though he had a legitimate reason for hating the Jews to the utmost, because they descended from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, and their head was rooted in holiness; nevertheless, it was improper for him to try to uproot an entire nation.  That is not a straight path to sustain the world.  Therefore, he cried out, May my soul die the death of the upright – i.e. those who sustain the Creation…  (Ha’amek Davar, introduction to BeReishit)[1]


Ø I shall see it, but not now; I shall behold it, but it is not near: a star has emerged from Ya’akov and a staff has risen from Yisrael, and it shall crush the corners of Moab and destroy all the children of Shet.  Edom shall be a possession, and Seir shall be a possession for his enemies, and Israel shall do valiantly (24:17-18).

The Messianic King will eventually arise and restore the Davidic Dynasty to its original glory and dominion…  Anyone who does not believe in him, or anyone who fails to await his arrival, denies not only the rest of the prophets, but also the Torah and Moshe Rabbeinu.  For the Torah affirms [Mashiach’s existence], as it says,  – The Lord your God will return your captivity and have mercy on you, and He will return and gather you…  If your dispersed will be at the ends of the heavens… the Lord your God will bring you [to the Land] (Devarim 30:3-5)…  [The concept of Mashiach] is also mentioned in the parashah of Bil’am, where [Bil’am] prophesied about two messiahs: the first messiah, namely David, who saved the Jews from their oppressors, and the last messiah, who will descend from him and save the Jews at the end.  There it says, I shall see it, but not now – this refers to David; I shall behold it, but it is not near – this refers to the Messianic King.  A star has emerged from Ya’akov – this refers to David; And a staff has risen from Yisrael – this refers to the Messianic King.  It shall crush the corners of Moab – this refers to David… And destroy all the children of Shet – this refers to the Messianic King…  Edom shall be a possession – this refers to David, as it says, All of Edom became servants to David (II Shmuel 8:14); And Seir shall be a possession – this refers to the Messianic King, as it says,  – Saviors shall ascend upon Mount Zion [to judge the mountain of Eisav] (Ovadyah 1:21).  (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 11:1)


This entire prophecy refers to the Messianic King…  [Chazal] comment on the verse  – In its time I will hasten it:  “If they are worthy – I will hasten it; if they are unworthy – in its time” (Sanhedrin 98a)…  [The phrase] I shall see it corresponds to [the redemption of] “If they are worthy…”  It will not happen now, but some other time, which may not be so far off.  After all, Chazal say that the people of Israel will be redeemed immediately if they repent as is required…

In reference to the redemption of “in its time,” our verse says, I shall behold it, like someone who looks from afar.  This is evident from [the continuation of the verse] but it is not near, for the redemption of “in its time” is extremely long, due to our sins…

If the redemption comes about through Israel’s merit, it will be exceptionally exalted, and Israel’s Redeemer will appear from the heavens with wonders and signs, as the Zohar describes.  However, if the redemption comes because the set time has arrived, and Israel does not deserve it, things will happen differently.  In reference to this [possibility], Chazal say that the Redeemer will come “poor and riding on a donkey” –  (Zecharyah 9:9)…  Regarding [this] redemption… it says, a staff has risen from Yisrael.  That is to say, a leader will arise from among the Jewish people, the same way [leaders] arise throughout the world, in a natural fashion, as it says,  – He appoints the lowest of men over it [the kingdom of man] (Daniel 4:14).  This means that [the Redeemer] will come “poor and riding on a donkey,” and he will rise up and rule…  (Or HaChayim HaKadosh)

[1] Even though this piece has no direct connection to Eretz Yisrael, I decided to present it here because of its profound importance.  I just hope that Torah Jews the world over will internalize its lesson and learn to respect one another despite their disagreements on issues like Zionism and Eretz Yisrael.