Shabbat-Table Talks: Balaq
By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Value: Respecting the Bet Knesset (Synagogue).
When we enter the Bet Knesset we enter holy space. What does holy mean? The Bet
Knesset is special and our behavior there is different than it is anywhere else.
It is a place connected with Hashem and His Torah. We create the holiness there
by our decision to act in a special way there. Respecting the Bet Knesset and
its services is essential for inspiring Torah observance.
Background: Bne Yisrael had just defeated two formidable kings, Sihhon
and ‘Og and were facing Balaq the king of Moab. His fear led him to call in
the master sorcerer Bila’am from “across the river” to curse Bne Yisrael.
Bila’am, persisting after Hashem’s initial refusal, goes to curse Israel but
ends up praising and blessing Bne Yisrael instead. One of his praises is the
tobu ohalekha Ya’aqob, mishkenotekha Yisrael.
goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.
Analysis: The straightforward meaning of the verse is clear from the
verses introducing Bila’am’s parable. Those sentences inform us that
Bil’am “lifted up his eyes and saw Israel, dwelling by their tribes”
(24:2). The orderly way in which Bne Yisrael camped in the wilderness impressed
Bil’am and earned Israel his praise.
Hazal (Our Sages, of blessed memory) explained the verse as
referring to Israel’s houses of learning and to its synagogues. It is
customary to say this verse upon seeing and entering the synagogue. According to
Hazal, the verse refers to the beautiful synagogues. Not only is the physical
beauty important, but also the decorum and the nature of the service.
One thing that can ruin the aura of holiness of the
synagogue is when idle chatter disturbs prayers in the sanctuary. Imagine how
distracting discussions about sports or “the market” can be to anyone who is
taking their tefilla seriously. (However, the way the market has been lately,
talking about it might actually make people pray harder! J)
(Note: Use the familiar word for synagogue. Most popular is
the Yiddish word “Shool” which is similar to the word “school.” One can
use the Arabic word “knis.” I prefer the Hebrew Bet Knesset.)
What are proper things to do in the Bet Knesset, in the
place where we pray? (praying, learning, thinking about God, concentrating,
repenting--an easy question to start the discussion).
What kinds of things are not right to do in the Bet
This could be done as an activity, going around the table
with each person gives a suggestion of improper synagogue behavior and why it is
wrong. (talking, running, playing, fighting, etc.)
FAQ’s (Frequently Asked
Q. But it is very hard to see my friend and not talk to
A. If you have to talk with him, walk outside the place
where people are praying and talk to him there where it will not disturb other
Q. What should I do if my friend starts talking to me.
A. Ask him if it is urgent, or could it wait a few minutes.
Ask him to step outside if it is urgent, so as not to disturb other people.
Q. But even adults talk when they really shouldn’t?
A. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Admit that he is right. And say that
we hope that they would learn the proper way to behave in the Bet Knesset.)
Q. What do you do if your child is disturbing while the
whole synagogue is in the middle of the Amidah?
A. This is a vexing problem. On the one hand, you do not
want to interrupt your own prayer. On the other hand, many people are being
distracted by your child’s behavior. Half measures, like signaling him to stop
making noise, etc, are often ineffective or even counterproductive. They just
get your child more frustrated and increase the decibel level of the
disturbance. My advice (to be confirmed with your Rabbi, of course) is to do the
action that would decrease the total disturbance as quickly as possible. Stop
your own prayer, pick up your child and escort him lovingly outside the
sanctuary. Do this with love and the confidence that one day he will learn. You
do not have to teach him the whole lesson on this occasion. Do not give in to
the temptation to get angry with him--even if you explained this to him many
times. Remember, it is more important that your child has a good feeling about
What are some things that could be done to make the Bet
Knesset more children friendly? Having children’s groups, with Torah stories
and games is a good idea; as well as having dynamic young people leading these
groups. Most successful are parent-child groups that encourage participation of
the older children.
Additional Discussion: Value--accept truth from whoever says it. The
statement discussed in most of this article is originally Bil’am’s whom the
Rabbis call “the evil one.” How can this idea be used in Judaism if such an
unsuitable person stated it? The fact that this statement is said in our
liturgy, illustrates the point that we should accept truth from whoever
It is customary to say the verse “ma tobu ohalekha
ya’aqob…” (How goodly are your tents…) when we enter the synagogue. It
is also customary to say Psalms 5:8 upon entering the Bet Knesset.
But I, through Your abundant love (berrob hhasdekha),
enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple.
To read last year's Table Talk click here.
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