Separate, But More than Equal
After beholding Bnei Yisroel dwelling according to their tribes, Bilam is inspired to bless Bnei Yisroel with the eternal blessing “מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל (How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel)” .
These words from this week’s parsha are at the beginning of virtually every Jewish siddur (prayer book). For individuals that come to shul, they are the first words said upon entering the place of prayer. They carry great significance, a mere few words reflecting much of Jewish thought. It is therefore uncanny that they were the words that poured from the mouth of one of Bnei Yisroel’s most celebrated adversaries, Bilam HaRasha (the wicked one)!
Truth be told, it was not Bilam’s intention to pay tribute to Bnei Yisroel, quite the contrary. It had been Bilam’s intention to curse Israel, but Hashem forced his tongue to transform his curse into a blessing, one which we say each day upon entering a shul. Although Bilam’s words ended up constituting a blessing, nevertheless, they came from a spiritually-corrupted person. Certainly there are many other blessings from far superior sources that could be used when entering shul. What awareness are we supposed to obtain from Bilam’s“blessing? Why, of all the blessings in the Torah regarding Bnei Yisroel, are these words the ones chosen to be recited ?
Rashi, citing Chazal , explains that Bilam observed how “the openings to their tents were not facing one another.” He was thus inspired by the high standards of privacy and mutual respect that the people afforded one another – to the extent that they ensured that no one would be able to glance into his neighbor’s home.
Shalom (peace) is sublime. Hashem blessed us with it: “ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום (Hashem will give strength unto His people; Hashem will bless His people with peace) , ישא ה’ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום (may Hashem turn his countenance upon you and establish peace for you) .” Our Rabbis taught  that Hashem found no vessel that could contain blessing for Bnei Yisroel save that of peace.
Peace can be defined in numerous ways. When two sides that originally started out in agreement come together, although they are at peace, this is still not peace in its fullest sense. Rather it is when two opposites come together and act in harmony. When groups of people of diverse philosophies choose to resolve their differences and get along. That is why there are twelve tribes. Each tribe had a unique approach to life and thus served Hashem in its own unique way. Just as Hashem is Infinite, so too are there countless appropriate ways to serve Him. As long as a path of service conforms to Halacha (Torah Law) it is valid. It should therefore be understood that Hashem’s intent is for the Jewish people to have true peace, as in the cooperation of total opposites.
A prime example is the Gemarah  that teaches “that a man without a wife is a man without Torah.” If an unmarried man does a mitzvah or learns Torah, he isn’t doing the mitzvah in a complete manner. The reason for this is that only when a man is married and is united to an opposite, a woman, is every mitzvah he does complete. The same is true of prayer. Chazal say  “a prayer isn’t complete unless it also includes the sinners of Israel in its supplication.”
This is true in so many things in life – a symphony orchestra, or the organisms of the human body, for example. It would be detrimental if every part did the same thing. Rather, it is essential that every piece perform its own function with the ultimate goal of contributing to the success of the entire body.
One may suggest that just as each of the twelve tribes served Hashem differently, this is also why there are so many different groups within Orthodox Judaism today, each group serving Hashem in their unique way.
There are many groups of Jews: men and women, Ashkenazim and Sefardim, kollel people and wage-earners, more religiously inclined and less religiously inclined; rabbis, laymen, prosperous individuals and underprivileged, righteous people and unrighteous; religious and irreligious, etc. Although ultimately the ideal is to follow the Torah way of life, nonetheless the Gemarah  teaches us that just like a pomegranate is full of seeds, so too even the most spiritually empty Jews are full of good deeds. When all the various diverse categories of Jews unite in the service of Hashem, it results in the ultimate peace and perfection. If all these groups would get together to serve Hashem, they would bring wholeness to the service of Hashem. Hashem wishes for opposites to be bound together in their service to Him.
The Maharal  notes , that the numerical value of “echad” (one) is 13, which represents the twelve tribes held together by the middle point – Torah and service of Hashem.
Since every tribe had its own distinctive approach to life, we can see that the common thread of all of Israel is the Torah and service of Hashem, which ultimately unites us as one nation.
People’s different roles in Israel are part of our essence. It is what defines us as a holy nation and not merely a religion. May we be blessed that the different pieces of Israel achieve this level of diversity and individuality, yet still come together like one person with one heart, and therefore be privileged to completely fulfill the Torah with Divine help.
Reb Moshe of Kobrin  explained the words of Rashi that what Bilam actually saw was that their “openings” – meaning the opening of their hearts – were not open one to another, implying that each one served Hashem for their own sake and in a unique manner; not merely because he saw his friend doing so and therefore following suit . The Ahavas Yisroel  used to say that each tzaddik has his own individual way of serving Hashem. But each tzaddik must recognize that all the other tzaddikim are also correct in their way of serving Him.
This is why we say this particular blessing upon entering the shul. Although we are coming together to pray with a quorum we still need to remind ourselves that it is our uniqueness, our individuality, combined with each other person’s individuality that makes our service and prayer of Hashem more potent. The prayer of “Mah Tovu” points out that we are all unique individuals who are coming together to join in prayer.
Rabbi Dovid Sochet