Near the beginning of the prayerbook there is a passage from this week’s Torah reading. The Torah tells how Balaam, a non-Jew with spiritual power, tried to curse the Jewish people. Each time, G‑d forced him to give a blessing instead.
This happened twice. The third time was different. Balaam, standing on a hilltop overlooking the camp of the Jews, underwent a temporary change of heart. He himself was moved to give them a blessing: “How good are your tents, Jacob . . . they are like gardens by the river, like fragrant herbs planted by G‑d . . .”
Rashi’s commentary tells us why Balaam was so moved by the sight of the tents of the Jewish people. From the way they were pitched, he could sense an atmosphere of modesty and privacy. From the entrance of one tent you could not peep inside the entrance of any other. It was clear to Balaam that in this nation, the Jewish people, there was great respect for the integrity of family life and for the sanctity of the person.
The opening words of Balaam’s blessing entered the prayerbook, and have been repeated daily for thousands of years by Jews all over the world. The values expressed in these words have contributed, together with many other aspects of Judaism, to the comparatively high level of stability in Jewish family life.
The ideal of modesty applies to both men and women. It relates to clothes, behavior, speech and thought. Why is modesty considered so important in Jewish life?
A basic human perception is the idea that something holy is also something special, kept apart, reserved, even hidden. For example, due to the holiness of the Temple, one could not always go there, and certain areas were restricted to kohanim, the priests. The Holy of Holies could be entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the high priest.
Similarly, a Torah scroll is generally kept hidden. It is kept wrapped in its mantle or silver case in the ark, unless it is actually being read in the synagogue. If for some reason it has to be taken from one location to another, it is usually wrapped in a tallit. These images suggest ways in which one might respect the sanctity of the human body, created in the divine image, with the task to make the world a dwelling for the divine.
By contrast, today we live in an epoch of communication. This is a very positive aspect of our society. Yet communication needs to have limits. The idea that one can reveal everything and say anything can be of great value in appropriate situations. Yet, used unwisely, it can also be harmful to the basic sanctity of the human being and the world.
It is a simple fact of life that modesty is particularly at risk when one is in a “tent,” when traveling, on holiday, in a relaxed and less guarded mode. Yet it was the modesty expressed by the Tents of Jacob which impressed Balaam, and transformed his desire to curse into the desire to give a blessing.
Our role as Jews is to be an example. The Torah describes us, thousands of years ago, as expressing the virtues of modesty and privacy. Through affirming these values now, we can help make a world in which every detail of life is illuminated by the radiance of the divine.