Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov: A Sanctified Perspective on Dignity, Privacy, and Community
After Bilaam's initial efforts to curse Klal Yisrael, the Torah (Bamidbar 24:1) records his shift in orientation: "vayar Bilaam ki tov be-einei Hashem le-vareich et Yisrael." The next verse identifies the source of his inspiration in this new undertaking: "vayisa Bilaam et einav vayar et Yisrael shochen le-shevatav va-tehi ruach Elokim." The gemara (Bava Basra 60a, also cited by Rashi 24:2,5) reveals that Bilaam was moved by Klal Yisrael's scrupulous adherence to the laws of hezek reiyah, which was manifest by a building code that protected family privacy. Indeed, Bilaam begins his blessing (24:5) by underscoring this very motif: "mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael."
Given the momentous character of this transition, Bilaam's focus on privacy seems rather prosaic, certainly curious, and even idiosyncratic. The fact that this theme apparently spurred his nevuah ("va-tehi ruach Elokim") compounds the mystery. Indeed, the gemara (though omitted by Rashi) significantly adds that after extolling this quality, Bilaam explicitly attributes Klal Yisrael's special tie to Hashem to its cultivation:"amar reuyin halalu she-tishreh aleihem Shechinah".
Maharal of Prague (Chidushei Aggadot, Bava Basra) perceives this expression of tzeniut as a hedge specifically against arayot-zenut, and adduces from this source that precluding arayot is the sine qua non of hashraat ha-Shechinah. This conclusion is consistent with Chazal's interpretation of "kedoshim tihiyu- hevu perushim min ha-arayot." However, the halachah's view on hezek reiyah is much broader, encompassing the right and value of privacy per se (see chapter 1 of Bava Basra and Rambam's codification of these laws in Hilchot Shecheinim), not merely with respect to protection from arayot. How does this expansive view coordinate with Bilaam's response? Indeed, the gemara derives the norm governing community construction and hezek reiyah from the Bilaam episode.
Perhaps the very expansiveness of these laws and their legal formulation as damages (hezek reiyah) accounts for these phenomena. Halachic privacy laws are designed not only to preclude the specific adverse effects of the violation of privacy, but to positively promote the value of privacy as an expression of personal tzeniut and human dignity. Moreover, it is noteworthy that these laws impose obligations and restrictions on the neighbor; they do not primarily focus on the defensive structural requirements of the potential victim. This point is reinforced in the sources that link these laws to the Bilaam experience: "shelo yatzitz le-toch ohel chavero" (Rashi 24:2). Undoubtedly, this emphasis entails a pragmatic component, but it equally accentuates the principle of arevut-mutual responsibility, fostering a protective posture vis-a-vis others. These laws convey an important perspective on neighborly relations and very concept of community that are worthy of being hailed as manifestations deserving hashraat ha-Shechinah.
The fact that the more subtle halachic privacy requirements come under the rubric of damages (hezek reiyah-nizkei shecheinim, albeit in the framework of Hilchot Shechenim, rather than Hilchot Nezikin...), a legal phrase typically associated with obvious and egregious destructive behavior and measurable financial loss, is surely significant. This expansion of "damages" reflects that personal and communal responsibility generates actionable legal expectations. The fact that the high standards demanded by halachic life redefine other categories of thought and law in this manner is truly inspirational, as Bilaam's response conveyed.
Finally, it is noteworthy that these regulations not only apply in a tzibbur or shecheinim context, but also characterize and define an important dimension of personal, community, and even national life- "vayar et Yisrael shochen le-shevatav". In most cultures, there is an antagonistic tension between personal aspirations and communal-national agendas, between privacy and community. The Torah's vision of mamlechet kohanim and goy kadosh, however, perceives personal dignity and individual privacy as essential building blocks in communal and national structures that also transcend their individual components and that are particularly hospitable and conducive to hashraat ha-Shechinah.
Chazal note that the phrase "shochen le-shevatav" that transmits the structural privacy requirement of every individual home ("she-ein pit'cheihen mechuvanin zeh keneged zeh") also underscores the individuality and quasi-independence of each shevet ("raah kol shevet ve-shevet shochen le-atzmo"), even as seeing the unity of all of Klal Yisrael was also a prerequisite for Bilaam's poetic blessing. Thus, Bilaam experienced not only halachic privacy laws narrowly and technically applied, but also confronted the full sweep of the Torah's multidimensional vision of the concentric and interlocking elements of Jewish life, as well as its distinctive approach to human dignity, neighborly responsibility, and the notion of community and nation that enhances rather than erodes the sanctity of the individual. These perspectives adequately justify Bilaam's rhapsodic reaction, supporting the notion that "mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov" constitutes the linchpin for hashraat ha-Shechinah.