מה טובו אהליך יעקב
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.
“That’s some new kitchen Sandra just had done. State of the art!”
“Psst . . . Did you see the new car Mark just took delivery of? It’s got every gadget available!”
Common conversation. Rather routine, everyday talk.
They tell of a traveling salesman who had broken all records for sales in his company. When asked the secret of his success, he explained that the first thing he said when someone opened the door was, “Did you see what your neighbor Mrs. Jones just got?” That trick never failed him.
This was never the Jewish ethic, however. We were taught differently. And our ancient value system is as relevant as ever in contemporary life. Privacy, modesty, and discretion are all characteristics our people have cherished since we became a nation.
“Bilam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes.” Rashi offers one interpretation of the verse to mean that the doorways of the Israelites in the wilderness were designed so they did not face each other. That way, one person was not able to see into his neighbor’s tent, and their privacy was protected. In fact, this is one of the explanations of Bilam’s famous praise of the Jews, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov,” “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” The heathen prophet was extolling the Jews’ virtues in their town planning, whereby they took precautions to safeguard their privacy and modesty and to protect their personal family lives from would-be busybodies and peeping toms, otherwise known as yentas and nudniks.
But another possible interpretation of “not looking into your neighbor’s tent” might be this: Do not look into your neighbor’s tent to help you decide what you should be doing. Your decisions in life should not be based on what other people are, or are not, doing. Certainly not on what your neighbors have or do not have.
Social workers today will painfully testify that family breakdowns are often a result of financial difficulties and the stress that puts on marriages. Many of those stresses are self-imposed. Their clients confessed that they didn’t really need the new kitchen or the new car, but once their friends were moving up in the status stakes, they felt under pressure to maintain their social standing.
Whether it is the kitchen, the car, a vacation, or the latest digital technology, if we allow ourselves to be judged by other people’s criteria, we lay ourselves open to a lot of unnecessary stress. Even a simcha — a wedding or bar mitzvah — can get us into “keeping up with the Cohens” mode, from the seven-layered designer invitation hand-delivered to every guest down to the posh dinner-dance replete with chopped-liver sculptures. Why? All because we are busy looking over our shoulders or peering into the next-door neighbor’s place.
The principle even applies to tzedakah. There is an appeal for the shul or a Jewish charity, and how do we respond? “Well, if so-and-so, who is a multimillionaire, gave only $10,000, then all I should give is $10!” But what difference does it make what someone else gave or didn’t give? You should give what you can, irrespective of what others gave. How much resentment, bitterness, disappointment, and fardrus we would avoid if we didn’t try to measure ourselves by other people’s standards. We would be much happier people if we looked into ourselves and achieved what we could and should, without drawing comparisons with others.
If you want to enjoy the blessing of “goodly tents” or even just good housekeeping, keep your eyes and your nose in your own tent. Then you will be content too.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.