Brachot 16

In today/tomorrow’s daf (Brachot 15b-16a) we read a beautiful drasha presented by Rav Chama B’Rabbi Chanina based on the words of Bilam.

Having proclaimed ‘How good are your tents (אהליך), Jacob, and your tabernacles, Israel’ (Bemidbar 24:5), Bilam continues by describing how: ‘They stretch out like brooks (נחלים), like gardens beside a river, like aloes (אהלים) planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the water’ (ibid. 24:6).

Reflecting on these verses Rav Chama wished to explore the association between אהלים – tents (either as explicit in v. 5 – Tosfot, or as hinted to in v. 6 – Rashi) and נחלים – brooks, and this led him to teach that ‘just as brooks (נחלים) can elevate a person from a state of impurity to purity, so too, tents (אהלים) can elevate a person from a bad judgement to a good judgement’

Clearly, when Rav Chama refers to a brook he is referring to a natural mikve which spiritual tranforms. But what kind of אהל is he referring to?

  1. Rashi (on Brachot 16a) explains that this refers to the tents where Torah is studied and taught. Based on this interpretation, Rav Chama is explaining that just as a mikve can be spiritually transformative, the act of immersing ourselves in the study of Torah can also help us transform ourselves.
  2. Based on the Gemara’s (Sanhedrin 105b) interpretation of Bemidbar 26:5, it could also be argued that the word אהלים refers to synagogues where Jews gather to pray – which itself would make much sense given the extensive discussions in Massechet Brachot about prayer. According to this interpretation, it is the act of immersing ourselves in the words of prayer, in our moments of prayer, and in our relationship with God that is expressed by the act of prayer which helps us change ourselves.
  3. Based on Rashi’s commentary on Bemidbar 26:5 it may be claimed that the word אהל may refer to Jewish homes. We often forget the power of a Jewish home to uplift and transform a person – either someone who lives there, or a guest who has come to visit. But there is little more impactful or spiritually transformative than the energy and the spirituality that can be found in a Jewish home.
  4. Finally, it is possible to claim that Rav Chama’s interpretation actually referred to a literal reading of Bemidbar 24:6 and that he was contrasting the spiritual transformative quality of a brook to the physical healing properties of aloes such that just as the latter is a balm to the sores and injuries of the body, so too the former can be a balm to the sores and injuries of the soul.