Parashat Balak

Seeing Their Faces But Not Their Doors

The Israelites' dwellings in the wilderness provide us with a model for ensuring the existence and dignity of adequate housing for all members of society.

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What is a good place to live?

"Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'acov, mishkenotecha Yisrael--how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel." This famous line from Parsahat Balak, spoken by a non-Jewish prophet about Israel, seems simple enough. The great medieval commentator Rashi, however, sees another level of meaning in it. He tells us that Balaam spoke these words because the entrances to the homes of the people were not aligned with one another.

It seems odd that of all the things that a prophet could praise about Israel, especially since he is praising them against his will, Balaam decided to praise the fact that they cannot see into each other's homes. But perhaps it is not so strange that what makes a dwelling place "good" is the ability to have privacy within it.

Indeed, this idea is so important to Rashi that it appears twice in his commentary on this portion: Just a few lines earlier, in chapter 24, verse 2, Rashi explains that the words, "Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes," actually mean that he saw that their entrances were not aligned with one another, so that one could not peek into the tent of his friend.

We know that conditions in the desert must have been very difficult. Nevertheless, Israel was able to ensure that every family had a space of their own, a place that was theirs.

It is enlightening to contrast this with modern conditions of poverty in the U.S.A. The U.S. government, claiming to respond to the demands of the people, has made it more and more difficult for the poor to have a decent place to live.

Not long ago, Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York provided us with an excellent example of how this sort of policy works: If a person refuses to go to a homeless shelter, they can be sent to jail. If a person does go to a shelter for the homeless when sent there by police, but once he or she is there refuses to do anything asked by the shelter, they can be thrown back onto the street--where, presumably, the problem will be taken care of by an arrest shortly afterwards.

It is curious that a modern city, with an enormous amount of resources--certainly far more than a tribal people wandering through the desert--is nevertheless far less able to provide a decent place to live to all its community. Oddly enough, it is not even a matter of money: Case after case has shown that with programs that encourage ownership of housing, the conditions of people's lives materially increase--along with the safety of their neighborhood--and for far less money than running a sting operation against homelessness. (Habitat for Humanity is only one example of how successful a program like that can be.)

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Rabbi Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin received her Rabbinic Ordination and Master of Rabbinic Studies from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.