The "blessing" of Bil’am, "ma tovu ohalekha ya’akov…," is the subject of one of Rashi’s better known commentaries. Rashi remarks that Bilam, inspired by the sight of the Jewish encampment in the desert, praised the camp for its planning, which took into consideration human needs and respect for privacy. In our daily lives, we interpret this verse differently, for we recite this verse when we enter the synagogue. This practice is based on a midrash which understands the tents and the "mishkanot" mentioned by Bil’am as a reference to the synagogues and study halls of Israel. This midrash is, in turn, a reworking of another midrash which identifies the "tent" with the "ohel mo’ed" and the "mishkan" with the mishkan of Shilo.
Transforming the tent and the mishkan into synagogue and study hall is a common theme in midrashic literature. It is meant to help us think that the devastation of the destruction of the Temple was not total and that we survive in our synagogues and study halls. The daily use of this interpretation of the verse shows us how much Judaism outside of Israel is focused on synagogue and yeshiva life. Outside of Israel, we are not able to build a Jewish society that reflects the human values which inspired Bilam.
The focusing of Jewish life in the synagogue is, however, only temporary, as all of Jewish existence in exile is temporary. It is well known that many synagogues outside Israel have been converted to churches. I tell people who build magnificent edifices for synagogues that they should take into consideration that their synagogue may one day turn into a church. Only in the land of Israel do we find permanent Jewish existence, as reflected not only in the synagogue and study hall, but also in the matrix of day-to-day life. If we have not been able to fulfill this to the extent to which we desire, it is in great part due to the fact that our brethren who think like us have not come here to help us build the Jewish society that we prefer.
This is a weekly column contributed by Aloh Naaleh an organization devoted to motivating Jews to make Aliya.
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