The Torah describes the scene: Bilam, the evil prophet, hired by King Balak to curse the Jewish People, is standing on a mountain top overlooking the camp of Israel and he pronounces (among other things) one of the more famous blessings which we customarily say upon entering a shul:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How good are your tents, Jacob, your sanctuaries, Yisrael”. ( Bamidbar 24:5)
What exactly did Bilam see that caused him to praise the tents of Israel?
Rashi famously brings cites the Gemara in Bava Batra 60a:
עַל שֶׁרָאָה פִתְחֵיהֶם שֶׁאֵינָן מְכֻוָּנִין זֶה מוּל זֶה:
For he saw that their tent entrances where not facing each other.
What was so amazing about the direction of the tent entrances that impressed Bilam so much?
To understand Rashi’s comment we need to refer back to the source in the Mishna and Gemara in Bava Batra 60a.
There the Mishna cites the halacha:
A person may not open an entrance opposite another entrance or a window opposite another window toward a shared courtyard.
The Gemara asks for the source of this law and cites our pasuk above and then asks: What did Bilam see when he looked out at the camp of Israel that spurred him to praise the tents? The Gemara answers:
He saw that the entrances to the tents were not facing each other and he thought,’these people are fitting to have the Divine presence dwell with them’.
Rashi on the Gemara there explains that this halacha is an expression of Tzniut – Modesty and the Maharal in his commentary on this Gemara (Chiddushei Aggadot, Bava Batra) explains that we learn from here how:
Tzniut brings the Shechina – Divine Presence , and the opposite of Tzniut pushes away the Divine Presence.
So Bilam didn’t just see the arrangement of the tents – that is not what impressed him – rather he saw something much more profound, the Shechina, the Divine Presence dwelling amidst the people.
How is Tzniut represented by the tent arrangements? And how is Tzniut related to the Divine Presence?
The Maharal, in Netivot Olam, (Netiv HaTzniut perek 1) teaches that Tzniut is all about the hidden within a person. Far more than being limited to one’s clothing, or lack thereof, being Tzanua means having an inner world of pinimiut, internality, ( Rav Chaim Freidlander, Siftei Chaim, Tzniut) that is not on display, not for sharing with anyone who curiously wants to know our every movements.
As Sivan Rahav Meir writes so wisely:
Bilaam came from a culture without boundaries. Suddenly he saw a culture of privacy, gentleness, modesty, hallowed personal space for every family and every human being, a culture without concern for constant updates on the news in every person’s life. Our commentators write that this is the foundation for building our character, our home, and our nation – not everyone lives in the same tent. Everything does not belong to everyone. Today this is an enormous challenge. There are so many buttons that say “publish” and “share.
We live in a ‘display yourself and your life’ culture. Everything is ‘shared’ for the 1000’s of ‘friends’ to see. The tents are wide open for all to view the – often imaginary – life that we want others to see that we have.
Sometimes one might feel that if you don’t get a selfie of it and instantly Instagram it, did it really happen?
This display culture is one of deep misrepresentation. All we see is the external. It is so loud, so in our face and vies for our attention that we have to be very sensitive and put in the time needed to connect to the soul of things or people. When we go on display, we live in the external, for no one viewing an Instagram, Facebook or Twitter post gets any real access to the genuine sincere self. It only objectifies us, our lives, and others as vessels for the curious and bored to be entertained. Further, when we are living for the likes and the count of ‘views’, then we can start to feel like we are only worth something when others know about it, and affirm it – a perfect breeding ground for further low self esteem.
Deeper, when we display it to others we are accentuating the vessel, the outer, external, finite layers of who we are, at the expense of the true infinite light, the Divine Presence with in. We can fall into the trap of living in the outer, and all the while, our inner world is left empty, undeveloped.
Tzniut is the opposite. By cultivating an inner private self, a depth of character, concrete values and spiritual sensitivity is nurtured. We get in touch with our soul and enrich our lives from the inside out with the Divine light that shines through it. Tzniut brings the Divine Presence, and the opposite pushes it away.
Going back to Bilam, he saw that the Jewish people were Tzanua. They were not out to display themselves to others, they had an inner world, a sanctuary of self which is where they resided, where they were anchored. As such, the Divine Presence shone from them. This is the strength of the Jewish People, this is our heritage.
Let us not fall into the ills of the social media culture that surrounds us. Rather, may we merit to uphold and truly live the last words of this week’s haftora:
What is Good? What does Hashem ask of you? If only to do Justice, love kindness, and walk with Tzniut with your G-d” (Micha 6:8).
Have a beautiful Shabbos.