Torah Reading:  Parshat Chukat - Balak, Numbers 19:1 - 25:9

Haftora: Michah 5:6 - 6:8

Shabbat Candle Lighting: 8:13 PM

Shabbat Ends: 9:21 PM 





Tents and Dwelling Places

One of the heathen Bilam’s celebrated blessings, incorporated in our daily prayers is:

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105) explains that Bilam was referring to the two fortresses of Jewish uniqueness, Houses of Study (Batei Midrash) and Houses of Worship (Batei Knesses or synagogues). The “tents” refer to the Houses of Study and the “dwelling places” refer to the Houses of Worship.

Commentators observed that when Bilam alludes to the Houses of Study he uses the name Jacob for the Jewish people, whereas when he refers to the synagogues, he employs the name Israel.

Nothing in the Torah is there by chance. Associations between words are not just for poetic flourish, even in its poetic verses. There thus must be some message in knowing that Houses of Study are associated with our Jacob identity and Houses of Worship are linked to our identity as Israel.

The Talmud makes it clear that when Jacob was renamed Israel, his original name was not rendered obsolete. Indeed, in the very same verse where G‑d calls him Israel, He immediately reverts to calling him Jacob.

Two Modalities

From this we can derive that the Jewish people manifest their Jewish identities in two modalities.

The first modality is the Jew who struggles and wrestles with his adversaries.

Jacob was so named because he struggled to hold onto his brother Esau’s heel. This constituted a profound struggle because Jacob knew that if Esau could emerge as the first born, his ability to overcome the adversity that would emerge from Esau and his allies would be virtually nonexistent. Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel was his protest of Esau’s seniority and it aided him in future confrontations with his brother.

The Jacob modality of struggle was demonstrated even more forcefully when he had to contend with his wily and corrupt uncle Laban.  

Name Change

However, Jacob’s main and final challenge, before he acquired the name Israel, was his wrestling match with the mysterious individual, identified by our Sages, as Esau’s guardian angel. After a full night of wrestling, Jacob prevailed and would not let the angel free from his grip until he blessed him. His blessing was “you will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel because you have fought with an angel of G‑d with people (Laban and Esau) and you have overcome them.”

In other words, after this wrestling match Jacob had earned entry into a new challenge.

Whereas up to this point his challenge was overcoming adversity through struggle, the new challenge was to grow within the realm of goodness and holiness.

Throughout our stay in exile we have had to maintain both identities.

In times of persecution, whether directed at our physical lives or our spiritual lives, conditions required us to enlist the Jacob power. We held onto the heels of the exile forces, to prevent them from overpowering and vanquishing us.

However, there have also been times when we were able to ignore the threats from the outside and could focus on our spiritual growth and engage in the Israel mode, when external challenges have ceased to plague us.

Shabbos and the Weekdays

These two modalities are also reflected in the difference between Shabbos and the weekdays.

Weekdays are referred to as Jacob days. By design and Divine fiat, we are told to engage the world with all of its unsavory influences, and hold onto its heels to prevent it from gaining mastery over us.

When a Jew resists an improper temptation, he or she earns the honorific title Jacob.

However, living in exile conditions is fraught with great peril. Jacob’s victory over Esau’s guardian angel came with a price. The angel struck Jacob and caused him to limp. Although Jacob recovered fully, the injury took a toll on him and exposed his vulnerability. According to our Sages, that injury manifested itself centuries later on Tisha B’av, the day of the destruction of both Holy Temples.

To protect us from the threatening forces of exile life, we have to have a place of refuge.

According to the Talmud, the refuge from outside toxic influences is Torah study. To this end, Houses of Study were established to enable Jews to flee the threats to them from the outside. When the Talmud discusses the Biblical Cities of Refuge it refers to Torah as a “city of refuge.”

The Shabbos Modality

Then there is the Shabbos modality

A Jew needs to withdraw from the trials of the secular world and engage in strictly holy endeavors as if there were no threats and that we were no longer in exile.

This is the approach that characterizes Shabbos. On the Shabbos, we Jews elevate ourselves from the Jacob mode into the Israel mode. Shabbos is therefore a day of delight and peace of mind because on Shabbos all adversity and negativity disappear. On Shabbos, we live in paradise where no evil lurks and we are no longer hanging onto Esau’s heel. On the contrary, the word Israel contains the word rosh-head because on Shabbos we are no longer associated with the heel but with the head.

Training to be Astronauts

Shabbos comes but one day a week and it takes preparation to enter into its elevated atmosphere.

Before an astronaut flies into orbit and experiences non-earthly forces such as weightlessness, he or she must train.

Similarly, for a Jew to escape the weight of the material and toxic world and enter into the spiritually weightless experience of Shabbos, one must undergo training while still on terra firma.  

This training, Chassidic masters teach us, occurs during our daily-weekday prayers. During our prayers we soar into the spiritual stratosphere and live the Shabbos experience during the week.

Hence, when Bilam prophesized about the goodly tents, he was referring to the Jacob-weekday mode, when we are forced to escape into the Houses of Study of Torah; our modern spiritual Cities of Refuge. 

However, when he states “the dwellings of Israel,” alluding to the higher mode of Israel, Bilam alluded to the Houses of Worship in which we train for the Shabbos mode.

Exile and Redemption

These two modes also parallel the periods of exile and Redemption. In exile, we are predominantly in the Jacob mode, struggling with the pressures imposed by exile conditions. We must struggle to earn a living, resist ideologies that are contrary to Torah and stay afloat in a spiritually hostile world.

The Messianic Age, by contrast, will be predominantly the age of Israel. There will be no pressure brought against us by the negative forces and we will not need Torah study to protect us from harm. To be sure, we will still be learning Torah, but for much higher purposes than to escape the outside world.

As we stand on the threshold of the Final Redemption, it behooves us to combine the two modes, with particular emphasis on the Israel-Shabbos-Redemption mode, focusing on communal prayer and studying Torah, not as a refuge but as an exalted way of connecting to G‑d.