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Balak 5761

By: Rav David Milston

Weekly Shiur-Parshat Balak-Rav Milston

“How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob, your dwelling places, Oh Israel”
(Bamidbar 24/5)

Rashi cites a Midrashic interpretation that both “tents” and “dwelling
places” refer to the Temples and Tabernacles, but that “tents” allude to
them whilst they stood, and “dwelling places” allude to them in their

The word “dwelling places” – “Mishkenotecha”, derived from the Hebrew
“Mashkon”, meaning collateral. The implication is therefore that when Israel
sinned, G-d took collateral, as it were, destroying the Temples instead of
venting His anger against the people.

Malbim comments that “tents” refers to the Tabernacle period in the midbar,
as opposed to “the dwelling places” that refers to the more permanent basis
in Eretz Yisrael. Malbim goes on to explain that when in the midbar, outside
of Israel, we are referred to as Yaakov, yet when we are in Israel we are
referred to as Yisrael.

When studying the names Yaakov and Yisrael in the Sefer of Bereishit, one
can see a clear distinction as to when one name is used instead of the
other. The difference between the approaches of Yaacov, as opposed to that
of Yisrael, when facing a particular situation, is striking to say the
least, even though they are one and the same man.

Up until Yaakov’s confrontation with the angel, on the eve of his historical
meeting with Esau, in every situation, his approach is diplomatic. From our
very first viewing of Yaakov, the buying of the birthright, we see Yaakov
acquiring the bechora, not by direct confrontation, but by choosing the
right moment to achieve a long-term goal. Similarly, when receiving the
blessings from his father, instead of confronting his father with the claim
that his brother is unworthy of these special berachot, Yaakov, with his
mother’s encouragement, avoids direct confrontation, and seemingly deceives
his father.

In the house of Laban, Yaakov avoids dispute time and time again, even when
the cost of this policy is time consuming and painful. Even when deciding
his approach towards Esau, Yaakov prefers the diplomatic approach, choosing
the sending of gifts as the primary tactic.

Yet, suddenly his policy changes. As he battles with the angel, Yaakov, for
the first time, confronts the issue directly, and struggles throughout the
night, eventually prevailing. The Yaakov we see here is a new person with a
different approach – he is no longer Yaakov, he is now Yisrael.

However, as opposed to other examples of name changing in the Torah, such as
Avraham, Sara, and Yehoshua, Yisrael’s former name does not cease to exist.
Avraham replaced Avram, Sara replaced Sarai, Yehoshua replaced Hoshea, yet
Yisrael does not replace Yaakov.

Using the above quoted Malbim, I think that we can explain this unique
phenomenon. The names Yaakov and Yisrael, refer to differing approaches.
Both approaches are legitimate, when used in the right context.

The Yaakov approach, the diplomatic approach, that aims to avoid direct
confrontation, that aims to survive, through the most effective means
possible, is the approach of the midbar, of Am Yisrael outside of Eretz
Yisrael. This is the way that we should behave when we are in exile, when we
do not have our own independence, when we are reliant on the mercies of the
Labans and Esaus of the world. The objective is not, Heaven forbid, to
compromise our beliefs, but to realize our predicament, our limitations, and
work out the most effective way of achieving what must be achieved.

The Yisrael approach, is reflective of sovereignty, of independence, this
approach does not encourage confrontation, but does not avoid it when
necessary. Our verse therefore explains to us that the approach of Yaakov is
correct, when we are in tents, when we are in chutz laaretz, when we are at
particular station in our history. However, the approach of Yisrael is the
correct approach when we are in Eretz Yisrael at our destination.

Rav Zevin also notes the differentiation between Yaakov and Yisrael. His
distinction, however, is not between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. Rav
Zevin points out that the name “Yaakov” reflects the normal religious Jew,
who spends most of his day dealing with issues of Olam Hazeh, he is
constantly fighting with the pulls of “Esau”, and manages only temporarily
during the day to break from his business, and absorb himself in
spirituality. These moments of “refreshment” are reflected by fixed times of
learning, going to pray three times a day, acts of goodness etc…. His
spiritual activities do not take up most of his day, but they nevertheless
give the correct tone and direction in all that he does. These are the
“tents” of Yaakov, the places of rest, in the midbar of Olam Hazeh that the
baal habayit uses in order to strengthen him, in order to keep going in the
right direction.

“Yisrael”, on the other hand, refers to the spiritual leaders of the people,
the righteous scholars, whose every act is an act of holiness. Those, who
spend every moment of their day immersed in the learning and teaching of
Torah, for these leaders, spirituality is not a resting point during the
day, but a permanent habitat – it is a Mishkan.

Rav Zevin concludes, that one might have thought, that the main objective is
that of “Yisrael”, total immersion in matters of kedusha twenty four hours a
day. The verse therefore informs us, that both approaches have elements that
are indeed unique to them. Clearly the status of “Yisrael” is superior to
that of “Yaakov”, in that it involves constant immersion in spirituality,
and elevation from matters of this world. However, the status of “Yaakov” is
also unique. Even though one is living in Olam Hazeh, one still maintains
ones spirituality, indeed, one who succeeds in the approach of Yaakov, not
only maintains spirituality, they also succeed in transforming matters of
this world from being mundane and irrelevant into acts of holiness and

Whichever of the above homiletic approaches that we choose to prefer, the
common theme that is reflected by the commentaries on this verse is that
although there are different approaches to be used at different times, or in
different places. That even though there are those who fulfill the role of
“Yissachar”, and others who fulfill the role of “Zevulun”, we are all
defined by one name – “Yaakov” or Yisrael”, the nation is one nation with
many differing elements, but with one common cause.

When looking at this parasha in its’ entirety one cannot help but notice an
incredible phenomenon. A phenomenon, that has proven itself time and time
again throughout the history of the Jewish people. For most of the parasha,
we read how a sworn enemy of the Jewish people tries to curse us. We see,
how whatever he attempts to do, Hashem stops him. All of his curses were
transformed into blessings. Yet at the end of the parasha, we also see how
Am Yisrael through our own lack of strength, through our own weaknesses,
brought disaster upon ourselves.

Parashat Balak emphasizes, more than any other parasha in Torah that our
greatest enemy lays within us, and it is therefore within us that we will
find our greatest strength. HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik, when explaining the
Talmudic statement - ”The face of the generation prior to redemption will be
like the face of a dog” – comments that when one hits a dog with a stick,
the dog jumps at the stick, even though the stick is not the real threat.
This will be reflective of our behavior before the final redemption. It
appears that our real enemy is very much clear to us, yet in reality the
apparent enemy is nothing but a stick, and just as Balak could not succeed
against us, neither will our current enemy prevail over us. Our real enemy
is reflected by our spiritual reality, the levels of assimilation, the
amount of disunity that exists within our people. It is our negligence in
dealing with the real issues that bring about the results of the end of the
parasha, and it is only ! through acts of our own, acts of repentance, that
we will bring the true redemption.

When “our tents and dwelling places” are once again “goodly”, when we unite
in Israel and in the Diaspora, and stand once again, as we did when Bilaam
tried to curse us. When we tackle the spiritual issues as we tackle the
other issues, then the redemption will surely come.

Shabbat Shalom


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