The nation of Israel was not formed as one bloc but rather divided into twelve different tribes with a common mandate and destiny. Such was noticed by the heathen prophet Bil’am who lifted his eyes “and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Bamidbar 24:2). It impressed him so much that he uttered words that accompany our daily entry in shul: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your sanctuaries, Israel.” What exactly did Bil’am see in our tents that was so “good”?
Rashi comments that Bil’am saw Israel dwelling according to our tribal formation, and he perceived that “each tribe [was] living by itself and not commingling, and that the entrances to their tents were not aligned so one person could not look into the home of his neighbor.” Such a nation he deemed worthy of having the Divine presence rest on it.
A few verses later, Rashi reiterates that Bil’am noticed that our tent entrances were not aligned, and perhaps there are two different points being made. One response was engendered by the tribal formation and the other by our tents. The entrances to the tents were not aligned for purposes of modesty and privacy. Too often people are tempted to find out what’s going on in someone else’s house; thus, this safeguard was enacted. Jewish law prescribes where we are allowed to build doors, windows, balconies and the like so as not to encroach on the privacy rights of others. We let others invite us in; we don’t intrude or insert ourselves where we do not belong. That is the definition of the “good tent.”
But Bil’am also saw us dwelling according to our tribes, each tribe to itself, and each entrance staggered so we don’t peer into the next tent. This is not modesty but propriety and broadmindedness. To peer into someone else’s tent means to scrutinize their conduct, to search for the slightest non-conformity, to seek out and highlight the differences, especially the failures or departures from the norm, that very often and improperly agitate and perturb us a little too much. The point is that all Jews are not the same. We were not formed as a linear, one-dimensional nation. If we were, then we wouldn’t dwell in tribes, and we would have our “entrances aligned,” all Jewish homes would look alike, sound alike and act alike. And that is not so and has never been so. We are a nation of tribes.
Among the most hollow, vacuous and pointless expressions we hear again and again is the call for unity. It sounds good – but unity occurred only happened at Sinai when we received the Torah. Indeed, if we were meant to have an imposed unity on the Jewish people, we would not have been divided into twelve tribes, nor would it be praiseworthy that Bil’am “saw that all the tribes lived apart and did not mingle.” We would all have to live together, do the same things in the same way, and never deviate. But each tribe has its own path and we glorify our own path and dismiss others out of ignorance. In effect, there are twelve paths to G-d, and each tribe represents a different one. I cannot emphasize enough that I am not referring to halacha here. The opposite is true. Every legitimate path – bar none – has to be faithful to Jewish law. But to think that there is only one way, or even that my way is necessarily better, holier or closer to G-d’s will, is a mistake. And so we are told not to “peer into the tent of our neighbors.”