“How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, Israel” Numbers 24:5


This notorious praise of the encamped Children of Israel comes from none other than Bala’am, the very same prophet who has, earlier in the same parashah, been hired to curse them by Balak, the local Moabite king. 

We use it in our liturgy daily (said when one enters the synagogue) and we miss no opportunity to gloat in the failure of Bala’am to curse us all those years ago. 

After all, as he himself says: “that which God blesses, I’ll bless, and that which God curses, I’ll curse”. Yet, what interests me most about this verse is not its admiration for the latest in desert-camp gear, but rather the fascinating contrast which is made with the haftarah for Balak, found in the book of Micah. 

The particular phrase mah tov (“how good”) is unusual, and thus its use in the sixth chapter of Micah led the Sages to make that the haftarah for Balak. There, Micah says: “You have been told, mortal, what is good, and what God wants of you: to ensure justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). It’s a beautiful verse — one which I believe encapsulates much of the Torah — but the mah tov here is quite different from Bala’am’s. 

Whereas Bala’am is descriptive, Micah is prescriptive. Bala’am suggests that the Israelites are already good, just by looking at their encampment from atop a mountain. Micah suggests that mortal beings are yet to be fully good, but can achieve such a state through love, mercy, and humility. 

Although it’s tempting to read Parashat Balak and give ourselves a nice pat on the back, mocking Bala’am and savouring the fantastical story of a foreign prophet accidently blessing us, we’d do better to look at the counterpoint provided by the haftarah. 

The tents of Jacob and dwellings of Israel can still be good, must be good even, but probably only with a bit of work by us to guarantee it. 

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive