When the Midianite prophet Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites in the wilderness, Hashem frustrates his plans so that blessings issue forth instead. The elevated language and vague eschatological references which characterize these blessings render them notoriously difficult to decipher. Balaam’s cryptic imagery also confounds Biblical commentators. Most curious of all, perhaps, is a remark that we find at the beginning of his third prophecy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”[i] In context, it is nearly impossible to understand what Balaam means with these words. Is he praising the Israelite homes for their spaciousness? Their sturdiness? Their cleanliness? Hazal didn’t think so. Rashi cites, ad loc, their interpretation of the verse:
“How goodly are your tents” – for he saw that the entrances were not facing each other.[ii]
In no more than ten words, our sages effectively isolate the thematic meaning behind one of the most recurrent tropes of Biblical imagery. Not only in this verse, but indeed, throughout Tanakh, “the tent” primarily symbolizes privacy.
Examples abound. In a drunken stupor, Noah retreats to, and disrobes in, the one place he expects nobody to intrude upon: the tent.[iii] Similarly, Rachel, hiding her father’s idols and attempting to evade his search party, ensconces herself within her tent.[iv] Even God relies upon the confidentiality afforded by the tent, holding his one-on-one conversations with Moses in the Tent of Meeting.[v] Later, Joshua retires the Reubenites, Gadites and Manassites from public service and grants them permission to return to their lives as private citizens by formally “sending them off to their tents.”[vi] But earlier in that same book, Akhan, violating military protocol, steals spoils from the enemy camp, avoiding scrutiny by stashing them away in his tent.[vii] Here we begin to see how a convention that enables secrecy can, like the tent in the Midianite’s vision,[viii] be “turned on its head” for nefarious purposes. Yet nobody plays on the power of the tent more than Yael. This woman, in the book of Judges, lures a Cananite general into a false sense of security by drawing him into her tent. There, she serves him a meal, puts him to sleep, and stabs him to death—using, ironically, a tent peg as her weapon of choice.[ix] The blessing Yael receives from the prophetess Deborah in recognition of her heroism invokes the image of the tent for yet a third time: “Blessed above women shall Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, be; above women in the tent shall she be blessed.”[x]
If we follow Hazal’s lead and treat the “tent” in Tanakh as a symbol of privacy, we may uncover layers of meaning in the text which had previously eluded us. Let’s examine, in particular, the first meeting between Isaac and his wife-to-be, Rebecca:
And Isaac brought [Rebecca] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother.[xi]
Many readers interpret Isaac’s gesture as an innocent attempt to welcome his future wife into his family. Our sages, however, add a secondary element to this brief episode. Here again is Rashi, citing the words of Hazal:
“To the tent of Sarah his mother” – He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother…[xii]
“For… his mother” – It is the way of the world that, as long as a person’s mother is alive, he is attached to her, but as soon as she dies, he finds comfort in his wife.[xiii]
In between the lines of these two terse glosses lies the fascinating suggestion that Isaac views his marriage as an opportunity to fill the void created by his mother’s absence. The patriarch wants Rebecca to follow in Sarah’s footsteps—he wants her to become a “second Sarah.”[xiv] That he should express this desire specifically by inviting his bride-to-be into the “tent” is most telling. Both of Isaac’s parents, after all, are described by the Bible with reference to a “tent.” But whereas Abraham stations himself “at the entrance of the tent,”[xv] Sarah withdraws “into the tent.”[xvi] Their positions reflect two paradigms—two poles—of personality. One thrives in public; the other, by contrast, prefers privacy.
Abraham’s responsibilities take him beyond the circle of his immediate friends and family. He risks his life[xvii] to rescue the captives of a war in which he had not been involved. He beseeches God[xviii] to take mercy on the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. He spares no luxury[xix] when hosting a group of travelling nomads. He even prays for the welfare[xx] of those who have wronged him. By contrast, Sarah fades anonymously into the background for much of Genesis. She follows Abraham to Canaan silently.[xxi] She surrenders herself to Pharaoh, [xxii] and later to Abimelech,[xxiii] without saying a word. She voices no dissent as her husband prepares to sacrifice her only son.[xxiv] Seldom do we as readers gain access into the matriarch’s inner world. Her thoughts and feelings remain forever her own.
Where does Isaac fit within this dynamic? All of the evidence suggests that Isaac takes after his mother. Like Sarah, Isaac travels through life in the shadow of Abraham’s fame. The verse which introduces Isaac’s biography reminds the reader—twice—that Abraham was his father.[xxv] Isaac’s first spoken word is avi (“my father”);[xxvi] his last is “Abraham.”[xxvii] As a youth, Isaac willingly sacrifices himself on the altar of Abraham’s ideals.[xxviii] As an adult, he dedicates himself to protecting Abraham’s legacy, re-digging his wells and renaming them in the fashion of his father.[xxix] Indeed, the only purpose for which Isaac ventures out into the world of his own accord is to meditate alone in a field.[xxx] Like Sarah, then, Isaac strikes us as contemplative and introverted.[xxxi]
Some, like R. Binny Lau[xxxii] and R. Shmuel Klitsner,[xxxiii] have raised the possibility that Isaac may have resented—or may, at least, have been adversely affected by—Abraham’s overbearing personality. But we need not adopt this interpretation in order to appreciate the challenges he would have faced as his dominant father’s more reserved son. Maybe it is this backdrop against which we ought to understand his decision to bring Rebecca into Sarah’s tent. Isaac’s first act as a newlywed is, perhaps, an impassioned plea for privacy. The husband invites his wife into the tent hoping that she, like he, will be moved by its quiet, its serenity, and its intimacy. He dreams of carving out a personal space in which he and his bride can build a home together. He prays that she will agree to raise their family outside of the limelight whose glare is threatening to blind him already at this early stage.[xxxiv]
Yet it is too late for Isaac by this point. Though he may seek a soul mate whose personality resembles Sarah’s, it was his father, Abraham, whom he entrusted with finding him a wife. And, as R. Chanoch Waxman observes,[xxxv] Rebecca is a carbon copy of her father-in-law. Like Abraham, Rebecca excels in providing hospitality to passersby. Both refer to their guests as their “masters;”[xxxvi] both “run” to serve their guests;[xxxvii] both request permission to wash the feet of their guests;[xxxviii] both provide their guests with shelter;[xxxix] both serve their guests a meal;[xl] and both offer their guests something to drink.[xli] Moreover, Rebecca emigrates from Haran to Canaan, separating herself from her homeland and from her father’s house just like Abraham had done decades prior. At the start of his journey, Abraham had received the command lekh lekha, “go for yourself”;[xlii] for her part, Rebecca declares elekh—“I shall go”—without prior command.[xliii] Before sending her off, however, Rebecca’s family blesses her to the effect that “your seed shall inherit the gate of its enemies.”[xliv] Only a few chapters earlier, an angel conferred nearly the exact same blessing: “your seed shall inherit the gate of its foes”[xlv]
In the second generation, then, everything becomes inverted: Isaac, the patriarch, adopts the passive, private persona of the matriarch, Sarah, while Rebecca, the matriarch, follows in the footsteps of the proactive, publically oriented patriarch, Abraham. But the irony continues. Of the third generation we read:
And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. And Isaac loved Esau because game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.[xlvi]
Against all of our expectations, Isaac, the introvert, loves Esau, the “man of the field,” while Rebecca, the extrovert, loves Jacob – the “man of the tent.” When we include the relationship of Abraham and Sarah and the relationship of Isaac and Rebecca into the mix, we find that the pattern of “publically-oriented” personalities pairing off with “privately-oriented” ones has, by this point in Tanakh, appeared three times already. What message is our text trying to communicate?
Within each of us lies an impulse that draws us into society. However, we also need our solitude. Humans crave attention, but cherish anonymity; we want to be a part of the community, but also, at times, to be apart from it. This is one dimension of the delicate dialectic discussed by R. Soloveitchik in in his classic essay on the first two chapters of Genesis.[xlvii] “It is not good for man to be alone,” God warns Adam on the eve of Eve’s creation.[xlviii] Yet, with a few notable exceptions, God never speaks to humans in the plural; throughout Tanakh, He tends to reveal Himself only to individuals – to the “lonely men and women of faith,” as it were. From this dichotomy we may deduce that both the public and the private self have a critical role to play in our avodat Hashem. And it is no accident that the drama of this dichotomy dominates the narratives told of our forefathers and mothers. As Sarah, Abraham and their descendants sow the seeds of the Jewish nation, it is precisely the balance between the public and the private self that they must carefully preserve.
On one hand, the greatness of klal Yisrael is sourced in its collective strength. At Sinai, God establishes His covenant with us as a people – not as individuals. In the land of Israel, He considers us as one unit when determining whether to bless us with economic prosperity and military success.[xlix] During Yom Kippur, the High Priest petitions for atonement on behalf of everybody. On Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot, we gather together in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival as a community. Even in the post-Temple period, a quorum of ten is required in order to discharge some of our most basic religious obligations in the optimal manner: kaddish, barechu, kedusha, chazarat hashatz, kri’at ha-Torah, birkat Kohanim, and sheva berachot are just some of the rituals which can only be performed in the presence of a minyan. To a large degree, then, the identity of a Jew is defined in terms of the group of which he or she is a part.
At the same time, God emphasizes, our greatness is not found only in our numbers.[l] It is also found in the privacy of our tents. Whether as a metonym for the beit midrash[li] or as a metaphor for the family home,[lii] the tent is the place where we form the bonds that have kept us together as a people for thousands of years. In all of our personal conversations with Hashem; in our efforts to claim, each of us, his or her own “letter in the scroll;”[liii] in the love between husbands and wives and between parents and children; and in the commitment of the family, as a unit, to open its door to guests, to grace its table with zemirot and words of Torah – to create, in short, a mishkan me’at in which the Shekhina is welcome to reside – therein lies the ultimate strength of the Jewish people.
[ii] Bava Metzia 60a
[iii] Genesis 9:21
[iv] Genesis 31:33-5
[v] Exodus 33:7-10. Interestingly, the text records that Moses “would take the Tent of Meeting and pitch it outside of the camp, far from the camp” – clearly a measure aimed at increasing the privacy of the prophetic encounter. See also, in this vein, Numbers 11:26-7, wherein Eldad and Medad are explicitly criticized for “prophesizing in the camp” instead of “going out to the Tent of Meeting” to prophesize there. Just as the “tent” serves as a symbol for the individual’s private life, the “camp” apparently serves as a symbol of the nation’s “public square.”
[vi] Joshua 22:1-7. We find at least two other verses in Tanakh wherein the “tent” is used to symbolize the life of the private citizen. Before the Israelite kingdom splits into two, the people cry “What share do we have in David? And no heritage in Jesse’s son! To your tents, O Israel!” (I Kings 12:16). Earlier in Tanakh, Sheba ben Bichri launches his rebellion against David with a nearly identical proclamation: “We have no portion of David, neither have we an inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel” (II Samuel 20:1). In both of these verses, the rebels claim that the monarchy has lost its legitimacy. There no longer remains any hope for the state of public life, they imply; everybody might as well return to his “tent,” i.e., to tending to his own personal interests.
[vii] Joshua 7:21
[viii] Judges 7:13
[ix] Judges 4:17-21
[x] Judges 5:24.
[xi] Genesis 24:67
[xii] Gen. Rabbah 60:16
[xiii] Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 32
[xiv] Interestingly, many psychologists have argued that men are attracted to women who remind them of their mother. I first heard this idea in Yeshiva from my teacher, R. Yehoshua Paltiel. See Dr. Joyce’s article in Readers Digest, “Why We Love Who We Love,” available at: www.rd.com.
[xv] Genesis 18:1
[xvi] Genesis 18:9
[xvii] See Genesis 14
[xviii] Genesis 18:17-23
[xix] Genesis 18:6-8
[xx] Genesis 20:17
[xxi] Genesis 12:1-5
[xxii] Genesis 12:11-15
[xxiii] Genesis 20:1-2
[xxiv] See Genesis 22. Many commentators suggest that Abraham never informed Sarah that he was planning to sacrifice Isaac to begin with. See for example Rashi to Genesis 23:2 and the Midrash which he cites.
[xxv] Genesis 25:19
[xxvi] Genesis 22:7
[xxviii] See Genesis 21
[xxix] Genesis 26:18
[xxx] Genesis 24:63
[xxxiii] See Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006).
[xxxiv] Cf. Genesis 27:1
[xxxvi] See Genesis 18:3 and 24:18
[xxxvii] See Genesis 18:2 and 24:20
[xxxviii] See Genesis 18:4 and 24:34
[xxxix] See Genesis 18:4 and 24:33
[xl] See Genesis 18:8 and 24:33
[xli] See Genesis 18:8 and 24:18
[xlii] Genesis 12:1
[xliii] Genesis 24:58
[xliv] Genesis 24:60
[xlv] Genesis 22:17. Rebecca’s family substitutes soneh (“enemy”) for oyev (“foe”) but otherwise mimics the angel’s diction verbatim.
[xlvi] Genesis 25:27-8
[xlvii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006)
[xlviii] Genesis 2:18
[xlix] See, for instance, Leviticus 26
[l] See Deuteronomy 7:7: “Not because you are more numerous than any people did the Lord delight in you and choose you, for you are the least of all the peoples.”
[li] See Genesis 9:27. Targum Keter Yonatan ad loc. translates “tents of Shem” as “Torah academy (Midrash) of Shem.” See also Exodus 33:11, where Joshua is described as “a lad who would not depart from the tent.” The Talmud (Temurah 14a) comments: “[From here] God saw that the words of Torah were precious to Joshua.”
[lii] This is how most commentators interpret, for example, the praise of Balaam, cited above.
[liii] See Jonathan Sacks, A Letter In The Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: Free Press, 2000).