The Family is the Foundation of Israel
The story of Balaam and his desire to curse the children of Israel is a fabulous one. At the request of Balak, King of Moab, he tries to curse Israel, but at each opportunity, G-d prevents him from doing so. Finally, without a choice, he blesses the nation of Israel in some of the most beautiful verses in the Bible. And Balaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel camping according to their tribes and the spirit of G-d was upon him. . . . How good are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, Israel.” (Numbers 24:2-5)
The Book of Numbers begins with the national census and the Children of Israel are counted based on their families, the “houses of their fathers.” This reflects an important development in the nation, for as the families of the Children of Israel become the Nation of Israel, the significant unit of identity is the family.
And indeed, it is this family unity, this dwelling according to their tribes and within their tents that attracts Balaam. Our sages noted that what Balaam actually saw within the camp of Israel was an incredible sense of modesty and respect for each other’s privacy. The openings of the tents were set up in such a way that they did not face the openings of the neighboring tents, allowing each family some minimum degree of privacy. And each tent belonged to a family, for there is holiness in the family unit.
It could not have been easy for millions of people to live in such close quarters and in temporary dwellings for so many years. Although there are numerous accounts in the book of Numbers of the people questioning G-d or of their lack of appreciation for the miracle of their lives, there isn’t a single account of family disputes or neighborly quarrels. And while we can assume that there was a certain amount of this, it clearly was not significant, or it would have been mentioned. Instead, we have Balaam’s account of the goodness of the tents of Israel.
As an outsider, Balaam was attracted to this idea of family harmony, within the context of national unity. This was an idea that was foreign to the Canaanite nations of the time, a culture that was permeated with pagan values and child sacrifice.
Interestingly, there is no indication that the children of Israel knew of Balaam’s attempt to curse Israel and his subsequent blessing of them, for there is no interaction between Balaam and the Children of Israel at any part of the story. Balaam stands upon the mountains of Moab and views the new nation from afar without their awareness. And what he sees is a blessing.
Throughout the centuries, the Jewish family has been the basis of the continued existence of our nation. Father and Mother take it upon themselves to teach their children the heritage of our forefathers and the teachings of the Bible. Family meals have also been a key element in the celebration of the Biblical holidays. Marriage and children are key values in Judaism, way beyond the personal enjoyment that prodigy can bring. It is the family unit that has enabled us to preserve our heritage and our uniqueness.
And Balaam echoes G-d’s promise to Abraham: “Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you.” (Numbers 24:9)
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office