How fair are your tents, O Jacob/Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)
These words, uttered by the ersatz prophet Balaam in praise of the Israelites, come from this week’s Torah portion, Balak, but are best known as the opening line of the well-known morning prayer, “Mah Tovu.”
If you read this verse carefully, you’ll notice that it essentially expresses the same idea twice, using different words and images. Literarily speaking, this is known as “a couplet,” and is considered a defining feature of Biblical poetry. Commenting on this phenomenon, Biblical literary scholar Robert Alter has observed that “there is a characteristic movement of meaning” from first half of the couplet to the second. (“The Art of Biblical Poetry,” p. 19)
Indeed, over the centuries Biblical commentators have parsed poetic verses by comparing the subtle differences between the first and second halves of a given couplet. In the case of this famous verse, the juxtaposition of Jacob with his “alter ego” Israel has given rise to some rich homiletical interpretation.
Reb Rachel Barenblat, for instance, offers this wonderful insight:
In this synechdoche, the patriarch symbolizes the whole. Jacob is the earthly, embodied side of the patriarch, the aspect that inhabits physical spaces. Israel is the other side of the coin, the part of the patriarch which wrestled with the angel of God and came away blessed. Where Jacob has tents, Israel has dwellings — in Hebrew, Israel has mishkanot, like the holy dwelling-place of the indwelling Shekhinah.
Each of us is both Jacob and Israel; we have Jacob-ness and Israel-ness in ourselves. And each of us can make the leap from inhabiting a tent to inhabiting a dwelling-place. When we wrestle and dance and dream with Torah, we transform ourselves from worldly Jacob to engaged Israel, and we embody Balaam’s blessing.
For my part, I find myself returning to the image of Jacob as “wanderer.” In his childhood, he is described as “ish tam yoshev ohalim” – “a simple man who dwelt in tents.” (Genesis 25:27) Tents are by their nature temporary dwellings; and indeed Jacob will eventually spend most of his life wandering/fleeing/returning/departing.
The name Israel, on the other hand, represents “home.” Even in the midst of his wanderings, Jacob/Israel will experience reconciliation (with his brother Esau), reunion (with his son Joseph) and at the end of his life, homecoming, when he is taken from Egypt and buried in the cave of his ancestors: “he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33)
As Reb Rachel points out, both Jacob and Israel are indelibly imprinted upon our spiritual psyches. We are forever setting out and we are forever coming home – life is an endless cycle of wandering and homecoming. And so it must be: if it were exclusively the former, we’d be eternally lost; if only the latter, our spiritual lives would become complacent and stagnant.
Here, then, is yet another way to understand Balaam’s blessing: that we may experience the divine presence in our going forth and in our coming home.
Never knew this explanation before, but I think it’s significant that all my dreams have always been about travelling. Railroad tracks, especially, and stations. But I have been blessed so far that the destinations have been pleasant. Going out and coming home! I like that.