Bilaam was charged with cursing the Jewish people. He was chosen by Balak due to his unique ability to perceive the exact times when HaShem was displeased with His nation.
Bilaam’s several tries proved unsuccessful. In fact his “curses” turned out to be blessings.
The most famous blessing of Bilaam is:
מה טבו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל
How Good are Your Tents, Yaakov, Your Dwelling Places Yisrael
This bracha has been incorporated into our daily prayers, and is said upon entering the Beit Knesset in the morning.
There are many commentaries with regard to the meaning behind these words. Some say that it refers to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert and the 2 Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples). Others say that it refers to the status of the Children of Israel before entering Eretz Yisrael (אוהל) and after settling the land (משכנות).
Rashi explains that Bilaam uttered these words after seeing that the openings of the tents of the Jews weren’t situated directly across from one another. This was a testament to their degree of modesty. One couldn’t easily see what was happening in the home of another.
I have always wondered what is so special about this. Even in the desert, tents were constructed with doors. If so, one could have his tent opening facing his neighbor and simply close the door. With the myriad dwellings in the encampment, designing homes this way could be quite burdensome. Why go through the trouble when you could just close the door?
Perhaps the answer lies within the inherent Jewish concern for others, originating with Avraham Avinu. His tent in the desert was open on all four sides. A true oasis in the wilderness.
Rashi doesn’t say that Bilaam noticed that the “doors” weren’t situated opposite each other. He specifically uses the term פתח (opening).
Their homes were open without being obtrusive. They were ready to help but not to meddle.
The home (and heart) of a Jew should always be open to others in need, whatever that need might be. It is this fundamental trait of chesed (kindness) with which we are imbued.
Openness, however, comes with boundaries for the giver and the receiver. Chesed should be performed with modesty and consideration for the feelings of the recipient. While we should always be concerned for the welfare of others, we must similarly recognize their right to privacy and dignity.
Our “doors” can be open without staring into the face of others.
There are numerous Torah commandments to help those in need. In parallel, there are many about speaking Loshon Hara (evil speech) or hurting others with our words. Often, in our zeal to assist another in crisis, we may be less sensitive to their feelings.
Bilaam’s blessing comes to remind us that the hallmark of the Jewish people is chesed. It is crucial, however, that it comes in tandem with modesty and respect, another fundamental characteristic of our nation.
This is why מה טבו is the first prayer upon entering the shul. The optimal way to start our day is with a commitment to be there for others without compromising their respect and dignity.