Structure for Success
Although Bila’am had initially intended to curse the Jewish people, as per his contract with King Balak, when the time came he ended up blessing us instead. The opening of his blessing is the verse of מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, how good are your tents, Ya’akov which is traditionally recited upon entering a synagogue to pray.1 Although it is unlikely that Bila’am himself was referring to places of worship, this verse does teach us about the value of building institutions and structures as part of our efforts to do good and contribute good to the world.
According to R. Yohanan, as quoted in the Talmud, when Bila’am was moved to say “mah tovu” he was commenting not on public spaces of prayer2 but on the arrangement of the tents of the families of Benei Yisrael in the desert:
תלמוד בבלי בבא בתרא ס.
מנהני מילי? א"ר יוחנן דאמר קרא וישא בלעם את עיניו וירא את ישראל שוכן לשבטיו (במדבר כד:ב). מה ראה? ראה שאין פתחי אהליהם מכוונין זה לזה אמר - ראוין הללו שתשרה עליהם שכינה:
Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 60a
From where do we know this (that one should not construct a window looking into that of his neighbor)? R. Yohanan said: As the verse says, Bila’am lifted his eyes and saw Israel residing according to their tribes (BeMidbar 24:2). What did he see? He saw that the openings of their tents were not aligned with one another. He said: These are worthy of the presence of the Divine.
According to R. Yohanan,3 what Bila’am notices and commends is the configuration of the tents in the desert. Instead of facing one another, every tent’s opening faced the back of the tent in front of it, preserving the privacy of each family. What Bila’am praises is not the behavior of the people; he doesn’t see them behaving modestly or actively showing respect for one another’s privacy. What impresses Bila’am is that the homes of the people are structured in such a way as to facilitate these kinds of respectful relationships. And what R. Yohanan is teaching, through Bila’am, is the value of structuring our environments and our lives in a manner that facilitates the way we want to behave and makes it easier for us to grow into the people we want to become.
This idea is reflected in the Ramban’s comments on the topic of placing one’s windows in locations that maximize privacy and minimize its opposite that is hezek r’iyah, violation through sight. According to the Ramban, the notion that one has to construct the openings to their house in a respectful manner applies even if the person whose privacy would be violated says that they do not mind, as he explains:
רמב"ן בבא בתרא דף נט.
…ועוד דאפילו מחל הניזק כיון דודאי אסור הוא למזיק להזיקו בראיה ולהסתכל בו לדעת ואין אדם יכול ליזהר בכך לעמוד כל היום בעצימת עינים, על כרחנו נאמר לזה סתום חלונך ואל תחטא תדיר…
Ramban to Bava Batra 59a
Also, even if the damaged did relinquish his rights [to object to the placement of his neighbor’s window, this principle still applies] since it is definitely forbidden to the damager to damage him by seeing and to knowingly look at him. And no person can be [sufficiently] careful about this, to stand all day with closed eyes. So we are compelled to say to him: Close your window,4 and you will not sin constantly.
The Ramban’s comments here highlight the importance of constructing one’s house in a certain way as opposed to committing to a certain behavior. No matter how resolute you are, how determined you are not to look into your neighbor’s property, you will not succeed if, every time you pass by your window, you have to remember to close your eyes—because we are fallible, we will fail unless we plan ahead and have the framework in place that we need in order to succeed.
However, the door of a home is not only there to keep prying eyes away from your living space; it is also there to be opened, to welcome visitors and guests inside. In articulating the value of providing for guests the notion of building one’s home in a way that facilitates hakhnasat orhim is a theme that emerges in Rabbinic literature. In Massekhet Avot we learn:
משנה אבות ה:א
יוסף בן יוחנן איש ירושלים אומר, יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך...
Mishnah Avot 5:1
Yosef ben Yohanan from Jerusalem says: Your house should be open wide, and the poor should be members of your household…
The Mishnah does not ask you to do the mitzvah of inviting guests; it merely asks you to open your house and leave it open. This increases your likelihood to find success in hakhnasat orhim in two ways. First, it automates the process—the open house does the work of providing shelter even without your intervention. You do not need to become a welcoming person, you just need to have a welcoming house. And, when your home is open and people come inside, this increases your opportunities to provide for others. The other advantage is that it increases the quality of your hakhnasat orhim. When your house is open and people do not need to be invited in order to feel at home, then anyone who crosses your threshold, including the needy, feel that they belong there, that they are full members of your household—benei beitekha.
The commentary of Avot DeRabbi Natan states explicitly that the advice that Yosef ben Yohanan is about creating a structure that facilitates the entry of guests into your home rather than modifying your behavior:
אבות דרבי נתן (נוסחא א) ז
יהי ביתך פתוח לרוחה כיצד? מלמד שיהא ביתו של אדם פתוח לרוחה לדרום ולמזרח ולמערב ולצפון, כגון שעשה איוב, שעשה ארבעה פתחים לביתו. ולמה עשה איוב ארבעה פתחים לביתו - כדי שלא יהיו עניים מצטערים להקיף את כל הבית. הבא מן הצפון יכנס כדרכו, הבא מן הדרום יכנס כדרכו, וכן לכל רוח… וכשבא עליו ההוא פורענות גדול, אמר לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא: - ריבנו של עולם, לא הייתי מאכיל רעבים ומשקה צמאים, שנאמר,ואוכל פתי לבדי ולא אכל יתום ממנה (איוב לא:יז)... אף על פי כן אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאיוב: איוב, עדיין לא הגעת לחצי שיעור של אברהם. אתה יושב ושוהה בתוך ביתך, ואורחין נכנסים אצלך... אבל אברהם לא עשה כן. אלא יוצא ומהדר בעולם, וכשימצא אורחין מכניסן בתוך ביתו…
Avot DeRabbi Natan (Version A), Chapter 7
“Your house should be open wide”—How? This teaches that a person’s house should be wide open to the south, the east, the west, and the north, like Iyyov did; he made four openings to his house. And why did Iyyov make four openings to his house? So that the poor would not be inconvenienced in having to go around the house. One who came from the North, could enter as he was already walking, one who came from the South could enter as he was already walking and similarly for any direction… and when that great suffering came upon him he said before the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the Universe! Didn’t I feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty?!” As it says, Did I eat my bread alone without an orphan eating with me?! (Iyyov 31:17)... Nevertheless, this is what the Holy Blessed One said to Iyyov, “Iyyov, you still haven’t reached half the amount of Avraham. You sit and wait inside your house and the guests come to you… but Avraham does not do so. Rather he goes out and circles around the world and when he finds guests brings them into his house…”
Iyyov’s four-door tent is considered to be the clearest manifestation of Yosef ben Yohanan’s principle. He built his house in a way that was inviting and designed it to be maximally convenient for guests coming from any direction. Although the midrash continues to critique Iyyov for thinking that his passive style of inviting guests was as great as Avraham’s more active approach,5 that critique itself underscores that Iyyov wasn’t necessarily an Avraham type. Perhaps Iyyov is concerned about the convenient entrance for his guests, because convenience is a priority for him. He might be someone who generally doesn’t go out of his way. Because Iyyov was not outgoing or even welcoming by nature, and it wasn’t within his character to chase after guests, this structure was necessary for him. It was the one way that he could guarantee that he would have the maximum level of achievement that was possible for him in this mitzvah.
Yosef ben Yohanan does not limit his advice to opening one’s home to the needy. The unfortunate conclusion of the mishnah is as follows:
...ואל תרבה שיחה עם האישה.
...and do not speak overly much with women.
According to the Breslover Nahalat Avot commentary, the connection between the first half of the mishnah which discusses welcoming guests, and the last half, which warns against speaking too much with women, is that, in his experience, it was the women who would be resistant when their husbands would try to institute an open tent policy in the home. (Although there are other Rabbinic voices which adopt a much more positive view of women and hakhnasat orhim). If it is true that the wives were opposed to this idea, it is not because they were less gracious than their male partners. It is because in that culture, when the man would invite a guest—unexpected or not—the woman of the house would have to cook for the guest and clean up after him without sufficient warning or perhaps without appreciation from her “generous” husband.
Although he does not acknowledge the uneven distribution of labor that creates the dynamic of women being perceived as less welcoming, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov6 has a compelling solution to increasing the hakhnasat orhim in one’s home. He advises that a man tell his wife that having an extra guest is not as much of a burden as she might imagine. He says to tell her that “it’s just one more piece of bread and one more place setting.”7 What Rebbe Nahman is diagnosing through this advice is that the women are refusing guests because they feel that the task of hosting is too large, but if they are reminded that they actually already have the basic framework in place—they already have a table, they’ve already cooked a meal—then they can be more welcoming. It is a lot of work to have to cook a meal from scratch, but not a lot of work to set out an extra place-setting. Once you have an existing structure, you can extend it.
The lesson to be learned from this is that, if possible, we should build our lives in such a way that extending kindness will require less from us. If we invest in folding chairs and extra place settings, we save ourselves the hassle of borrowing from a neighbor. If when we buy a couch, we choose the one that is a sofa-bed, we won’t have to worry about where a potential guest might sleep. We could always keep some soup in the freezer or always have some basic groceries on hand beyond what we ourselves need. We could have a four-entry tent with some small investments and without having to fundamentally change our home, or perhaps more significantly, we can become more kind without necessarily being able to change who we are.
Fortunately, not all Rabbinic texts present women as stingy. The Gemara in Ketubot tells a story about Mar Ukva’s wife whose generosity dwarfed his:
תלמוד בבלי כתובות סז:
מר עוקבא הוה עניא בשיבבותיה דהוה רגיל כל יומא דשדי ליה ארבעה זוזי בצינורא דדשא. יום אחד אמר- איזיל איחזי מאן קעביד בי ההוא טיבותא. ההוא יומא נגהא ליה למר עוקבא לבי מדרשא אתיא דביתהו בהדיה - כיון דחזיוה דקא מצלי ליה לדשא - נפק בתרייהו. רהוט מקמיה. עיילי לההוא אתונא דהוה גרופה נורא. הוה קא מיקליין כרעיה דמר עוקבא. אמרה ליה דביתהו - שקול כרעיך אותיב אכרעאי. חלש דעתיה. אמרה ליה - אנא שכיחנא בגויה דביתא ומקרבא אהנייתי.
Talmud Bavli Ketubot 67b
There was a poor person who lived in Mar Ukva’s neighborhood. [Mar Ukva] was accustomed to leaving 4 zuz for him every day in the door hinge. One day [the poor person] said, “I will go and see who it is who is doing me this kindness!” On that day Mar Ukva was late going to the Beit Midrash and his wife came with him. When [the poor person] saw that someone was swinging open the door, he followed them. [Mar Ukva] ran away from him and they entered into an oven that had just been swept of fire. Mar Ukva’s feet were getting burnt. His wife said to him, “Place your feet on top of mine.” Mar Ukva felt bad.8 She said to him, “I am found inside the house so my benefit is close.”
In this story, Mar Ukva is very intentional about the way that he gives tzedakah. He puts in a tremendous amount of effort to keep anonymous, so as not to shame the poor person who benefits from his generosity. He wakes up extremely early every morning to make his quiet contribution and even runs away into a scorching oven to avoid confronting its recipient. However, once in this oven, he discovers that his wife has more merit than he, and thus her feet are not affected by the oven’s temperature. She explains to him that she is more successful, not because she is a better person than he, but because her strategy is better. She is found inside the house and that in and of itself enables a certain kind of intimate quality of tzedakah (perhaps she offers a warm meal instead of cold, hard cash) and more opportunities to interact with people who cross her threshold and to address their needs. Mar Ukva feels so bad in part because he works so hard and is succeeding less, his wife teaches him that he need not work so hard and, in fact, that working less will enable him to succeed more.
We often share Mar Ukva’s mindset. We think of self-improvement in terms of working harder. We think that the more effort we put into becoming better people, the more likely we are to achieve our goal. Yet Mar Ukva’s wife reinforces the insight that when we make our goals too lofty, we may prevent ourselves from achieving them. And that sometimes all it takes for us to achieve our goals is a slight modification of our environment.
Instead of trying to ignore our weaknesses or trying valiantly to combat them, we need to acknowledge our areas of struggle and work with and around them. If you are a “morning person,” then a commitment to pray Shaharit with a minyan every day will be an amazing contribution to your community and will enhance your prayer life. If you are a night owl, however, the evening prayers might be a better commitment for you to start with. If we find ourselves failing despite our hard work, perhaps it is time for us to look at how we have structured our lives—are we being realistic about who we are and what we are trying to achieve? Are we giving ourselves the support that we need? Do we have the scaffolding in place for us to build and grow? Are we working with ourselves or are we trying to defeat ourselves?
Instead of obsessively focusing on who we are, let’s examine more closely what we are enabling ourselves to achieve. Let us build the right kind of tents and then generously inhabit them.
1 This practice is first recorded in the 9th century Seder Rav Amram Gaon.
2 Which also, presumably, did not yet exist. One of the reasons why the Rabbis read the verse as applying to synagogues is that the second half of the verse refers to mishkenot and the term mishkan in the Torah is applied exclusively to the house of God.
3 R. Yohanan himself connects the verse of “mah tovu” to houses of prayer and study on Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 105b.
4 By which he means, seal up your window, not “close the window-pane” as in the times of the Mishnah, windows were just openings in the wall itself.
5 There is a later tradition which ascribes this four-door tent to Avraham instead of Iyyov. It can be found in the 16th century midrashic collection Sefer HaYashar to Parashat VaYeira.
6 1772-1810, Ukraine.
7 Lit. tablecloth.
8 Literally “his mind grew weak.” In talmudic stories, this phrase refers to often refers to a range of bad feelings from severe depression of the sort that a person may never emerge from successfully. See Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 24a, Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 84a.