Parashat Balak- The Jewish home
In this weeks parasha, Parashat Balak, the prophet Bilam, who intended to curse the Jewish people, looked out upon them and declared "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel" (Bamidbar 24:5). In many prayer books, the siddur begins with this verse.
Although Bilam was a wicked man, he was a prophet, and these words were a prophecy. Bilam mentions two characteristics which are, in essence, the secret of Jewish existence. He relates to the "tent" (ohalekha) and the "dwelling" (mishkenotekha). The "tents" refer to the Jewish home, and "dwellings" represent the synagogues, the places of congregation, where the Shekhina rests.
Bilam observed that the two institutions which are integral to the Jewish people are the Jewish homes (ohalekha), and the home of God (mishkenotekha). Why did Balak connect these two concepts, i.e. the Jewish home and the home of God?
Interestingly, the Rambam, at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, notes that four parshiyot of Sefer Shemot discuss the building of the Mishkan. The purpose of the Mishkan, as the verse says, "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them" (Shemot 25:8), is that Gods presence should rest among the people. The Ramban writes the original sanctuaries were the homes of the avot, our forefathers. God’s presence dwelled in the homes of the avot; their homes were "temples," and the Mishkan is a replication, a duplicate of the homes of our forefathers. God’s presence dwelled in their homes, i.e. the home’s of the avot, and later, in the Mishkan.
R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809) explains that Jewish homes are actually holier than synagogues. He explains that while synagogues are used only for prayers, the Jewish home is filled with many Biblical mitzvoth, such as mezuzah, raising Jewish children, chessed, etc.
If so we can understand why Bilam mentioned the homes and then the mishkan. While they are both similar, Bilam was apparently more impressed with the Jewish home, the primary place of the resting of the Shekhina.
Interestingly, we might note that just as the Torah relates that the inauguration of the mishkan last seven days, known as the shivat yemei hamilu’im, so too the chatan and kallah are instructed to dedicate the first seven days after their marriage to rejoicing together, during the shivat yemei mishtei, as they begin building their very own mishkan.
This understanding presents us with a great sense of responsibility. A husband and wife are actually ministering their home. Nowadays, the Jewish home is under attack; anything is allowed and there is no supervision. Just as there are there are things that we would not allow into a synagogue, so too we should not let certain things into a Jewish home.
The Jewish home is integral for our survival. We have lived without a Beit HaMikdash for thousands of years; what has ensured our survival is the home. We pray that a young couple should build a bayit neeman- a "loyal house"- loyal to the laws, and loyal to tradition. Just as the mishkan merits the ‘presence of God’, so too God is meant to be present in a Jewish home.
In this context, I wish to mention that the women have a special responsibility in the home. In the Torah, women are referred to as the "tents." Thus, after separating from their wives for three days before the giving of the Torah, after Matan Torah the men are told to "return to their tents" (Devarim 5:27). Here too, Bilam refers to their "tents" – primarily administered by their wives. The akeret habayit has a special responsibility to ensure that the home is a welcoming place for God, and that is should be deserving of the presence of the Shekhina.