In the book of Numbers, the Gentile prophet Balaam delivers an extended, divinely inspired blessing to the people of Israel, which includes the verse, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob; your encampments, O Israel!” Drawing on traditional rabbinic interpretations of this verse, Ari Berman sees in it lessons for the current moment, where modern technology and a culture of exhibitionism have led to serious ethical concerns about privacy:
The rabbis of antiquity [understood the words “How fair are your tents” to refer to] the manner in which the Israelites had arranged their tents; namely, the tent openings did not face one another, thus preventing peering eyes from seeing into a neighbor’s home. In Jewish law, in fact, privacy is not simply a matter of personal preference. It is rather a formal legal category, such that peering into another’s private space is considered a form of injury. . . .
But at the same time, consider the verse’s second clause, in which Balaam praises the Israelites’ encampments. . . . The classical Jewish commentators . . . taught that whereas the word “tents” refers to the Israelites’ private dwellings, “encampments” refers to public spaces dedicated to collective, communal endeavors. Balaam offered praise for these places as well, for there are enormous advantages to cultivating an integrated, active public square. . . .
Taken as a whole, then, the rabbinic interpretation of Balaam’s ancient words highlights the importance of . . . cultivating both a virtuous private life and a virtuous public life. This is a crucial message as we think about educating the next generation.