- Parshat Balak
Family unit and modesty as an ideal
Parsha and its Implementation - Balak - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5779
The “Blessings” of Balaam in our Parasha are a fascinating source to trace his original intentions: "From the blessing of that wicked person, Balaam, you can ascertain what was in his heart" (Sanhedrin 105b). You can learn from them the curses he wanted to give in order to fulfill Balak's request. And what were the national 'strategic goals' of the people of Israel that he marked in his 'Purpose Bank'. This is a mirror image that reflects for us the strength and weakness of the people of Israel as were identified by Balaam who was an onlooker.
One of the goals was the "tents":
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!”.
Balaam looks up and notices the unusual arrangement of the Israel camp; Instead of all the tent openings being directed inward, to the center of the encampment: "he saw that the entrances of their tents were not exactly facing each other so that one could not peer into the other's tent” (Rashi 24: 2). He recognizes that the family tents of Israel in the desert receive special attention as a framework for the family unit.
While they were in Egypt, they worshiped idols, but there was no unchastity around, etc. "When they went down to Egypt, they were modest each one in his tent, as it is written:
אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
… the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household (Shmot 1:1)
“neither Reuben would look at Shimon's wife, nor Shimon at Reuben's wife, but each of them in his modest tent, and even when they were 600,000 in the desert, they were humble, and not one of them opened his door up against his friends’. (Yalkut Shimoni in Bamidvar Remez 771).
Balaam viewed the family unit of the people of Israel as a strategic goal, a "basic molecule" from which the social and national strength is based, stemming from a unique source of holiness and wanted to attack it and undermine its power. But G-d wanted to turn the curses into blessings.
At the end of the Parasha, when he was unable to harm the people of Israel by means of a curse, Balaam suggested using a cynical and vile exchange of seduction: "Balaam said to them: The God of these Jewish people despises lewdness, and they desire linen garments, as they have no new garments; come, and I will give you advice. Make for them enclosures using wall hangings and seat prostitutes in them, with an old woman outside the enclosure and a young woman inside, and have the women sell them linen garments (Sanhedrin 106a). This suggestion was successful:
וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בַּשִּׁטִּ֑ים וַיָּ֣חֶל הָעָ֔ם לִזְנ֖וֹת אֶל־בְּנ֥וֹת מוֹאָֽב׃
“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women” (Bamidbar 25:1). It was a "multi-casualty" strategic attack:
וַיִּהְי֕וּ הַמֵּתִ֖ים בַּמַּגֵּפָ֑ה אַרְבָּעָ֥ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֖ים אָֽלֶף׃ (פ)
“Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand” (Ibid 9) including a president in Israel. An event that caused a terrible crisis.
We would like to learn from this passage the unique approach of Judaism to modesty and the relationship between the sexes. And the high standards of modesty that Judaism seeks to shape within it.
Humanity recognizes the natural instinct of attraction between the sexes and the power of its influence. It wanted this attraction to be directed to what it’s supposed to be for: To establish a family unit and to preserve human existence. And established rules of morality and modesty for relations between the sexes and the separation of the family framework. Some of them were enshrined in the law.
Man "the crown of creation," was created "in the image of G-d" andוּמוֹתַ֨ר הָאָדָ֤ם מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ “man has no superiority over beast” (Kohelet 3:19). However, their creation may cause others to be treated as an 'object' to satisfy a low instinct, to overshadow their personal virtues and to devalue them. Humanity is exposed to the cynical exploitation of human weakness in the face of instinct, and turning it into a vehicle for commercial and other interests.
There are two levels:
A. Functional modesty - a set of rules of restraint, the conquest of instinct, barriers and precautions designed to prevent man from falling into the net of the instinct, and failure to break through the boundaries of modesty. It includes rules of behavior between the sexes in society, in contact, clothing, and in the prohibition of “Yichud”, and the setting of safety ranges in order to neutralize temptations and arousing passions, in the sense that:
אין אפוטרופוס לעריות
There is no steward for restraining sexual immorality” (Tosefta Ketubot 1: 9).
In a way, the rules of modesty between the sexes in society, in dress, in the prohibition of “Yichud”, are kind of barriers and boundaries placed for the instinct, and setting safety ranges in order to distance the person from the offense and to neutralize temptations and stimuli. This is the angle of view that sees the rules of modesty as a kind of coping with weakness.
B. 'Modesty as an ideal'. A higher level of reference to modesty. From a positive rather than a defensive approach - that sees the value in shaping a respectful and noble attitude to the "image of G-d" in man, and to its virtues. And sets high standards of nobility, gentleness and maximum respect in the relationship between the sexes. For the sexes have the potential to create a noble and sacred connection of relationships and the establishment of a family unit in which the most noble and sacred thing that man can give, the creation of a new born life is possible.
Modesty as an ideal is an overall strategy. It seeks to behave according to respectful rules of conduct that will be expressed precisely by creating a respectable distance. A distance that is not 'exclusion' but 'glorification'.
According to this approach, the rules of modesty are rules of conduct designed to respect the opposite sex by creating a "respectful distance," from contact and closeness, similar to creating a "respectful distance" from high-ranking people who have a representative role to be respected.
This also results of the increase in the threshold of sensitivity, and the learning the meaning to subtle nuances in the relations between sexes, similar to other areas where higher quality means more attention to finer nuances.
From this point of view, the attitude towards clothing modesty (for disclosed items) comes out of respect for the "human self" and not only as a prevention from arousal. (Like any self-respecting organization that assigns its employees a dignified, non-revealing dress code, similar to dignified events in which the participants are expected to dress in a dignified dress that suits the event).
Human cultural progress recognized the noble value of man and sought to express it in respectful clothing. As opposed to the primitive uncultured tribes who lived in the jungle and were dressed in minimal clothing.
According to this approach, the strict observance of “Yichud” laws that attribute an intimate meaning to the union between the sexes is a high standard expression of respect and not only a fear of the failure that may result from it. (As an example, not everyone can sit for a cup of coffee with the prime minister).
This kind of unique modesty of the Jewish people was identified by Balaam with his sharp gaze as he watched the camp of Israel. And this is what forced him to recite
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
"”How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel