Every summer, my family drives to Baraboo, Wis., specifically to the campsites at Devil’s Lake. For the last eight years, we have packed our tents, sleeping bags, bug spray and all sorts of other camping items, in order to spend a week with 60 of our closest friends. Don’t let anyone tell you that Jews don’t camp.
All of us know each other through being involved at one point or another with a local synagogue in Chicago, where we used to live. Like us, many families over the years have moved around, but we always make our summer pilgrimage to the same campsite.
We are assigned meals to make, and there is even a committee that puts an eruv around the campsite, since we will be there over a Shabbat. Not everyone is theologically aligned with each other, but we have a mutual respect that, in my view, parallels my perfect view of Klal Yisrael.
I share this aspect of my family’s life with you because I believe what we do in part mirrors this week’s Torah portion, parashat Balak.
Balaam, king of Moab, gets nervous when the Israelites defeat his neighbors, the Amorites. So he hires Bilaam, the local wizard/prophet, to curse the Israelites. This backfires, and Bilaam blesses the Israelites with the words, ma tovu…“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that Bilam observed how “the openings to their tents were not facing one another.” He was impressed by the high standards of privacy and mutual respect that the people afforded one another, to the extent that they ensured that no one would be able to glance into his neighbor’s home.
Even before my knowledge of this wonderful Midrash, all of us have always set up our tents in this fashion. It was not a spoken rule; it was just what we did. Maybe it is just part of our DNA, dating back to when we were Israelites in the desert and on this one day, we were blessed instead of cursed.
May we all, whether we are campers or not, learn to have such mutual respect for one another. And may we all help to create Pittsburgh’s perfect vision of Klal Yisrael.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)