Seeing Their Faces But Not Their Doors

The Israelites' dwellings in the wilderness provide us with a model for ensuring the existence and dignity of housing for all members of society.

Commentary on Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

What is a good place to live?

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’acov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” This famous line from Parashat Balak, spoken by a non-Jewish prophet about Israel, seems simple enough. The great medieval commentator Rashi, however, sees another level of meaning in it. He tells us that Balaam spoke these words because the entrances to the homes of the people were not aligned with one another.

It seems odd that of all the things that a prophet could praise about Israel, especially since he is praising them against his will, Balaam decided to praise the fact that they cannot see into each other’s homes. But perhaps it is not so strange that what makes a dwelling place “good” is the ability to have privacy within it.

Indeed, this idea is so important to Rashi that it appears twice in his commentary on this portion: Just a few lines earlier, in chapter 24, verse 2, Rashi explains that the words, “Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes,” actually mean that he saw that their entrances were not aligned with one another, so that one could not peek into the tent of his friend.

We know that conditions in the desert must have been very difficult. Nevertheless, Israel was able to ensure that every family had a space of their own, a place that was theirs.

It is enlightening to contrast this with modern conditions of poverty in the United States. The U.S. government, claiming to respond to the demands of the people, has made it more and more difficult for the poor to have a decent place to live.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once provided us with an excellent example of how this sort of policy works: If a person refuses to go to a homeless shelter, they can be sent to jail. If a person does go to a shelter for the homeless when sent there by police, but once he or she is there refuses to do anything asked by the shelter, he or she can be thrown back onto the street — where, presumably, the problem will be taken care of by an arrest shortly afterwards.

It is curious that a modern city, with an enormous amount of resources — certainly far more than a tribal people wandering through the desert — is nevertheless far less able to provide a decent place to live to all its community. Oddly enough, it is not even a matter of money: Case after case has shown that with programs that encourage ownership of housing, the conditions of people’s lives materially increase — along with the safety of their neighborhood — and for far less money than running a sting operation against homelessness. (Habitat for Humanity is only one example of how successful a program like that can be.)

Yet, instead of attempting to provide decent housing for the poor, the little money that is spent is directed toward creating homeless shelters, which are, in addition to physically dangerous places at times, extremely demoralizing to individuals, and often inhumane to families trying to stay together.

Why is this? It seems that we need to punish people for being poor. The ideology behind such laws understands poverty as the obvious result of slothfulness and greed. It insists that no one could be poor by accident, that those who are poor are of color, are “welfare queens” or perhaps are one of the “crazy” people who got dumped during the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals.

Even this last notion is somewhat of a concession for one who holds this ideology, who often believes that these are people who probably prefer to live on the street anyway, and besides, what we really need to do, for their own good, is to lock them up, where we can’t see them.

Even when people are provided with homes to live in that are not shelters, modern welfare housing is a disgrace. Private companies fail to do repairs on their properties to create a space that is even minimally livable: plumbing ceases to work, vermin move in, walls and doors sometimes have gaping holes. It is small surprise that the people who live in these places despair of a better life.

Rashi’s comment strikes so deeply to the heart of what it means to have “a good place to live.” The people Israel were moving forward toward their own land, and though not yet there, they made, as a community, homes that created an atmosphere of respect for one another.

Just as in every other community, there were undoubtedly those who were richer, and those who were poorer; yet every family in Israel had a space in which to live, a place that was respectable, and respected. From these homes, they were able to envision a brighter future, one in their own land, which they could work to build with their own hands, and to improve both it and themselves. The decency of their homes was the base from which they built our future.

Reprinted with permission from


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