In the weekly portion of the same name (Numbers/Bamidbar 22), Balak, the king of Moab, commissions the gentile prophet Balaam to curse the Jews who are travelling through his land on their way to Israel. While Balaam plays along (and is happy to accept Balak’s money), ultimately he is unable to disobey God and at every attempt, instead of cursing them, confers upon them some of the most beautiful and prophetic blessings in the Chumash. In his third and final attempt, while Balaam is looking down at the Jews’ encampment, he utters the classical phrase: “How lovely are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel”.
Quite incredibly, the blessing of this evil man found its way into the daily morning prayers, as the opening verse of the prayer Mah Tovu (according to some nuscha’ot of prayer, the very first thing recited each morning). It is the only piece of liturgy attributed to a non-Jew (as an aside, in the prayer customarily recited by some congregations during the Priestly blessing (birchat Kohanim) onFestivals, we pray to God that any bad dreams be transformed to good ones, and invoke Balaam as the prototypical example of such a radical transformation from bad to good).
Rashi, in his commentary on the Chumash, wonders what exactly was so good about the Jews’ encampment in the eyes of Balaam. Observing them from atop a cliff, Balaam noticed that the tents were arranged so that the doors were not directly across from one another; it is appropriate that the Godly presence should rest upon them as they were following a code of modesty – “tzni’ut”. Their tents were positioned in a manner that would afford each family its privacy, and they did not, nor did they desire to, look into each other’s tents without permission.
The attribute of modesty is linked to God’s presence and protection, as alluded to in scripture: “… walk humbly (hatzneah lechet) with God” (Michah 6:8), and “… that He see no immodesty (ervat davar) amongst you, and turn away from you (Devarim 23:15). Indeed, after Balaam’s lack of success, they sent Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men, which resulted in a plague.
This came to me while thinking about the Jewish attitude toward social networking web sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have revolutionized the way we communicate with each other. These platforms encourage us to have friends (so many friends that I don’t know who my real friends are any more), and to share aspects of our life with them. But is sharing such a good thing? And how much is enough? Indeed, Twitter, where this is done using phrases limited to just 140 letters and often from a mobile phone (this is how it started in the US, and was because of the technical limit in the size of an SMS), came under fire in its early days as people would post the most banal minute-by-minute commentary on their lives: “had eggs for breakfast”, “train running late”.
The Torah well understood the power of the network, which is expressed so succinctly in the Talmudic principle: “your friend has a friend, and your friend’s friend has a friend” (as an aside, the “be discreet” appended in some quotations is incorrect). It is used in a handful of places (Tractates Ketubot, Bava Batra, Erchin) to convey the principle that once you have told something to three people, it is deemed to be public knowledge. Anyone who has had an e-mail forwarded without their knowledge or consent can certainly empathize with this.
In an article about Muslim censorship of social media, Liel Leibovitz argues that the so-called “Web 2.0” – internet-based applications that facilitate collaboration – is governed by a logic that is inherently Jewish. While this may hold for group or collaborative learning (for example, in hundreds of years of the development of the Talmud and its subsequent commentators), the notion of living our day-to-day lives in the public internet is an inherently un-Jewish concept.
Social networking is a powerful tool, yet it’s way too easy to over-share. This modern phenomenon conflicts with the principles of tzni’ut and privacy espoused by the Torah, and certainly dilutes the notion of friendship. The lesson of Mah Tovu is that we should ensure that our virtual tent doors are not directly across from those of all of our friends.
The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.