Saturday, 22 June 2013

Balak: O-hell, what is this?

From last year's adventures my girls have a good handle on Parashat Balak. They remembered everything except the word  'אָתוֹן' [ah-tone] the Hebrew word for Bilam's female donkey. I marvel that some children's texts use the term 'she-ass' instead.

This year I decided to focus on Bilam's third bracha of the Jewish people, specifically "מה טבו אהליך יעקב, משכנותיך ישראל"[Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishcanotecha Yisrael]. Bilam, who has already failed Balak twice in cursing Bnei Yisrael, opens his mouth and proclaims, "How beautiful are your tents Yaakov, your dwelling places Yisrael. 

What made their homes so praiseworthy to Bilam? Surely from his position high on a hilltop he is able to see very little detail. Rashi says that Bilam is remarking on the arrangement of their tents. The dwellings were close together, showing the achdut [unity] of the Jewish people, but the openings were arranged in a way to maximize modesty.

Nice, but what about the repeated language in the phraseology? Aren't 'tent' and 'dwelling place' synonymous in this context? Aren't Yaakov and Yisrael the same person? Ramban explains that Bilam's words are not an observation, rather a prophecy. The tents are for sojourning in the wilderness, but the dwelling places will be the Jewish people's home in Eretz Yisrael.

Beautiful. But it doesn't answer the double name question. When I think of tents, I think of Sukkot, the temporary homes, used for the festival of Sukkot. The first mention of Sukkot in the Torah is in Bereshit 36:17. Yaakov has wrestled with the angel. The angel informs him that his new name will be Yisrael, but Hashem has not given it to him yet so he is still 'Yaakov'. After this episode, Yaakov names his next sojourn 'Sukkot' for the temporary shelters he made there. The name Yaakov is tied to physicality and struggle. He names 'Sukkot' when he is still Yaakov but has been informed of his potential as 'Yisrael'. 'Yisrael' means "to prevail over God." The potential to prevail is there, but 'Yaakov' does not actualize it.

Sukkot, 'אהליך יעקב - the tents of Yaakov', represent the Jewish people in their physical and superficial state. We are good, even in our basic form, because of our never-ending potential for greatness at God's hands. Bilam recognizes that in the first part of his praise. The second half of the phrase, 'משכנותיך ישראל - your dwellings Yisrael' is the Jewish people attaining proximity to our potential. Temporarily we are in tents of physicality, but when we work to achieve to the higher spiritual levels, it becomes a real dwelling place, where we stay and prevail. May we be able to achieve this as we start the period of the three weeks.  

Needless to say, I did not share my insights on this with the girls. Maybe in a few years when they can reason more abstractly. 

In the meantime they made a tent city. 

Using the template here I printed a few pages of tents. (I don't understand the cause this page is connected to so ignore the bottom instructions about decorating). 
I also printed the words of 'mah tovu' in Hebrew and English so the girls could work on reading. 
With colors, scissors, and glue sticks, the girls got to work. 

 Before I got pictures Gabi's went missing. Here are some of Cohava's masterpieces:

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