The Jewish people had many prophets, but Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest that will ever be. Prophets and prophecy was not only limited to the Jewish people, but existed also among the gentiles. Their greatest prophet, though inferior to Moshe, was Bilaam (see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 14:20). We become acquainted with him in the Torah portion of Balak which is the assigned reading for this week.

He was a prominent personality and an individual who would communicate with a Hashem. Nevertheless, his anti-Semitism and hatred for the Jews so blinded him that for the right price he forsook all his morals and integrity, and ventured out to curse them on behalf of Balak the king of Moab, who feared the very existence of the Jewish people. Simple logic dictates that such a person should be despised and rejected by us. He should be placed together with other notorious anti-Semites such as Amalek, Haman and Hitler yemach shemam — their memory should be eradicated — and of course never be given any prominence by the Jewish people.

If so, how is it that the authors of our Siddur, open our daily prayers with the words of the vile Bilaam which he offered when he attempted to annihilate the Jewish people? I am referring to his statement “ma tovo oholecha Yaakov mishkanotecha Yisrael” — “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel” (24:5).

Rashi in his commentary attaches a lofty interpretation to his words. Either that Bilaam saw that the entrances to their tents were not aligned and he was immensely impressed with their modesty or that he was referring to the Tabernacle situated in Shiloh for 369 years and the Beit Hamikdash where the Jews had the possibility to bring offerings and gain atonement. Moreover, Bilaam was emphasizing that our Holy sites even when they are in a state of destruction serve as a collateral security for the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, it still doesn’t make sense to quote this despicable individual. Was it difficult for the Siddur authors to find a beautiful passage to quote as an opening to our daily prayers from Moshe Rabbeinu, or from one of our many great and holy prophets, who even when they rebuked and admonished the Jewish people, did it with the greatest love?

Perhaps we can explain it in the following way:

A popular adage states: “A stranger for a while sees for a mile.” One who is familiar with “both sides of the fence” is in the best position to honestly appraise one’s virtues.

Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, had a profound insight of the secular world. When he took a close look at the Jewish people, he was stunned and flabbergasted at their beauty. Knowing keenly the shortcomings and faults of the gentile world, he involuntarily proclaimed, “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov.”

He was saying, “You Jews really have something to be proud of. Your houses of study and holy places have provided for you a lifestyle that gives you meaning and happiness.” Bilaam was telling them that it may be difficult at times to be a Jew, but it is worth all the hardships.

When a Jew rises in the morning, the first thing he does is he runs to shul to offer prayers to Hashem. Sometimes, one may have doubts and think “Why do I need all these limitations and restrictions? Perhaps it would be better to throw off the yoke and live a life free of Torah and mitzvot, G‑d forbid.”

In order to dispel any doubts about our convictions of G‑dliness and Judaism, we proclaim these words at the very beginning of prayers. We recall that even the great gentile prophet Bilaam, who had a vivid insight about all the nations that do not have the Torah to guide their lifestyles, attested to the beauty and superiority of our religion.

My dear Chatan and Kallah, you are now setting out to build an ohel — a physical tent for you and your family, and a Mishkan — a place in which the Holy Shechinah — Divine Presence — will find a dwelling place. I say to you, don’t permit yourselves to be disillusioned or discouraged by the false worldly glitter or some difficulty that may confront you. Remember the words of our non-friend, “How goodly are your tents O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel.” He envied us, and with a pang in his heart he sincerely declared “May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like this” (23:10).

Bilaam wanted the rewards of the World to Come without the commitment to Torah and mitzvot in this world. He was seeking an “easy pass” to Paradise. To you my dear Chatan and Kallah, I say, don’t just strive for the future destined for our people, but also live in this world like our people. Should you ever have doubts, remember that even Bilaam said “Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov” — “How goodly are your tents O Yaakov” — if it was good for him it is definitely good for us.


In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we read of the strange defense mounted by Moab due to their fear of the people of Israel. After witnessing what Israel had done to the mighty Amorites, Moab and Midian who were traditional enemies, joined together in response to the perceived threat from Israel, which they feared would destroy and uproot them. Convinced that the strength of Moshe, lay in his mouth, thus, for the best counter-attack the Moabites sent for the evil prophet Bilaam, whose power lay in his ability to curse.

Bilaam prefaced his attempt to deliver a lethal curse by building altars, slaughtering offerings and standing in a specific location. Upon witnessing Bilaam’s failure in his debut, Balak said to him “Go with me now to a different place from which you will see them; however, you will see the edge of their camp but not see all of them” (23:13).

There is an obvious difficulty in Balak’s approach. Since Balak was interested in the annihilation of the entire people of Israel, why did he ask Bilaam to curse them from a place where he could only see some of them but not all of them? Shouldn’t Balak have taken Bilaam to a place where he would have had a good view of all of them in order to cast a curse with his vile mouth, destroying all the Jews at once, G‑d forbid?

The great Chassidic master, Reb Mendel of Kotzk, explains it in the following way:

Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people were to no avail and his debut turned out to be a colossal failure. Balak said to Bilaam, “Perhaps your difficulty is that you look at the Jewish people as one entity. When you judge them as a whole, you see their collective splendor. Blind your eyes to their general excellence and concentrate only on certain aspects, and surely you will be able to find faults in individuals.”

To their dismay, their efforts were futile because each and every Jew in his own right was holy and righteous. Even if he had some minor fault, his overall beauty was evident.

This beautiful thought does not only apply to the Jewish people as a whole in comparison to the nations of the world, but also to all of us in our personal dealings with one another. Whether it be husband and wife, parent and son, business partners, or friends.

What we can deduce from this is that there are two schools of thought concerning how to deal with shortcomings and minor infractions. One is that of Balak and the other is that of Kotzk. Balak’s approach was to single it out, and magnify it. This way the person is ridiculed and condemned.

The “Kotzk” school says, “No, it is human to err, and we are all mortal beings.” Even Shlomo the wisest of all man stated that “There is not a man so righteous on earth that always does good and never sins” (7:20). Therefore, the wise Rebbe of Kotzk says, “See the entire man and you will be awed by his beauty.”

My dear Chatan and Kallah, too many in contemporary times follow the sick Balak-Bilaam approach and that is the cause for so much heart ache. My advice to you is that throughout your life follow the wise way of the Kotzker Rebbe. Realize that the person who you loved so dearly is human and if it should happen at times that he or she disappoints you, recall all the good qualities you once saw in that person and follow the way of the Divine — to forgive and forget.

"דרך בעלי דעה שיקבע לו אדם מלאכה המפרנסת אותו תחילה ואח"כ יקנה בית דירה ואח"כ ישא אשה"
“The way of wise people is that one should first have a source of livelihood, then build a house, and afterwards get married.” (Rambam Dei’ot 5:11)

QUESTION: How does this fit the pesukim (Devarim 20:5-7), regarding the soldiers exempt from going to the battlefield, which mention first building a house, then a source of livelihood — planting a vineyard?

ANSWER: When one plants a vineyard, for the first three years the fruit is arlah, and use of the fruit is prohibited. In the fourth year, the vineyard must be redeemed by bringing the fruits or their value to Jerusalem. Since the pesukim refer to one to whom redemption of a vineyard is relevant, obviously he has already owned a vineyard for four years. Thus, the Rambam’s rule that first a person should establish a source of livelihood and afterwards build a house accords with the pesukim, because though building a house is mentioned first, the planting of the vineyard actually preceded it.

(מעשה רוקח על הרמב"ם, ועי' רשימות כ"ק אדמו"ר חוברת נ"ו)