In this week’s Parsha, we have a famous verse that teaches us from where we should receive our directions. It was said by the evil prophet Bilaam. That verse is “Ma Tovu – How good are your tents Jacob, your tabernacles Israel.” Rashi quotes one explanation advanced by the Talmud. Bilaam praised the Jews because the entrances to their houses were not directly opposite each other. They behaved in a very modest fashion and they were not always trying to find out what was going on in the homes of their neighbors.
So, the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – of the Jewish people was their homes. That has always been the strength of the development of the Jewish people. The home is where children generally learned their love of Judaism and Jewish life. The home is where children generally learn what is important in life. A home that emphasizes the importance of a Shabbos meal, saying brachos, davening, answering Amen, not speaking disparagingly about others, displaying Jewish books, most likely will raise children with those values. If being critical of others is important in the house, it will be important to the children. If having beautiful dishes is a major emphasis – that will be the children’s attitude.
Then there is a 2nd explanation in the Talmud of Bilaam’s statement of, “Ma Tovu”. Bilaam wished to curse the Jewish people that they should have no synagogues. Instead, G-d forced him to say “Ma Tovu - How good are your tents, Jacob”.
The shul is a 2nd home for the Jewish place. It is where we daven together, learn together, eat together, celebrate together and, G-d forbid, share sad occasions together. The shul is what makes a Jewish community. Without a shul, one cannot have a vibrant Jewish community.
The shul is also a holy building. The Rabbis call it a “Mikdash Mi’at” – a miniature Bais Hamikdash. We have an obligation to treat it that way. That is why there are laws in the Shulchan Aruch regarding one’s conduct in a shul because it is not just another building. If people from outside a community see the members of a community behave respectfully towards a shul, they will have that same awe and respect. If a child sees an adult behave with awe and respect in a shul, they child will also behave that way. If adults and children sit in shul and participate in the services, they will develop a healthy respect for a shul. The shul will be seen as a Mikdash Mi’at and not a playground.
So, we have two explanations in the Talmud as to the meaning of “Tents of Ya’akov”- the home and the shul. Both are vital to the development of the Jewish people. We cannot do without either one. Both need to be seen as holy places – by adults and children. We must place emphasis on both the learning of the home and of the shul or other Jewish educational institutions. Then we will be truly able to say about ourselves, “Ma Tovu – How good are your tents Jacob”.