An earlier version of this article appeared in the July 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of Yeshiva University, whose theme was “privacy.” Thank-you to the editors for their helpful comments and suggestions!
We will begin by briefly considering the literary function of “tents” in Tanakh, in general. From there, we will proceed to examine the role that tents play in the life of Yitzchak, in particular—a character in whose life tents feature prominently. What we hope to see, by the end, is that it is largely through the symbolism implied by these tents that the Torah communicates its vision of Jewish peoplehood.
Introduction: “How Goodly Are Your Tents, O Jacob!”
When the Midianite prophet Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites in the wilderness, Hashem frustrates his plans so that blessings issue forth instead. The elevated language and vague eschatological references which characterize these blessings render them notoriously difficult to decipher. Balaam’s cryptic imagery also confounds Biblical commentators. Most curious of all, perhaps, is a remark that we find at the beginning of his third prophecy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).
In context, it is nearly impossible to understand what Balaam means with these words. Is he commending the Israelite homes for their spaciousness? Their sturdiness? Their cleanliness? All three options seem reasonable. Hazal, however, offer a different explanation:
“How goodly are your tents”—for Balaam saw that the entrances were not facing each other (B. Metzia 60a).
In no more than ten words, our sages effectively isolate the thematic meaning behind one of the most recurrent Biblical tropes. The tent, Ḥazal tell us, primarily symbolizes privacy in this verse. In fact, their interpretation holds true throughout much of Tanakh.
Survey: The Tent as a Symbol of Privacy throughout Tanakh
Throughout Tanakh, characters assume (and are usually correct in assuming) that by withdrawing into their tents, they are communicating a request for privacy that will be respected by those on the outside. Thus Noah, in a drunken stupor, absconds to and disrobes in the one place that he expects nobody to intrude upon: his tent (Gen. 9:21). Similarly, Rachel, hiding her father’s idols, ensconces herself within her tent and evades his search party as a result (Gen. 31:33-5). Even Hashem relies upon the confidentiality afforded by the tent, holding His one-on-one conversations with Moshe in the Tent of Meeting (Exod. 33:7-10).[i]
Not everybody who retreats into the tent does so with such lofty motives, however. In the book of Joshua, Akhan violates military protocol by stealing spoils from the enemy camp and stashing them away in his tent (Josh. 7:21). Here we see how a convention that allows one to avoid public scrutiny can—like the tent in the Midianite’s vision (see Jud. 7:13)—be “turned on its head” for nefarious purposes. Perhaps nobody plays on the power of the tent in this way as cunningly as Yael. This woman, in the book of Judges, encounters the Canaanite general Sisera as he is fleeing from his enemies and lures him into a false sense of security by inviting him into her tent. Once there, Yael serves Sisera a drink, puts him to sleep, and stabs him to death—using, ironically, a tent peg as her weapon of choice (Jud. 4:17-21). The blessing Yael receives from the prophetess Devorah in recognition of her heroism includes yet another reference to the tent: “Blessed above women shall Yael, the wife of Hever the Kenite, be; above women in the tent shall she be blessed” (Jud. 5:24).
Then there are those who invoke tent imagery to connote privacy in the political sense. When it is time for Joshua to discharge the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites from the army, for instance, he does so by formally “sending off to their tents” (Josh. 22:1-7). In this way, Joshua indicates that the state no longer requires the service of these soldiers; they are free to resume their lives as private citizens. Along similar lines, Sheva ben Bikhri launches his uprising against David by announcing: “We have no portion of David, neither have we an inheritance in the son of Yishai; every man to his tents, O Israel!” (II Sam. 10:21). Before the Israelite kingdom splits into two, the people issue a nearly identical proclamation: “What share do we have in David? And no heritage in Yishai’s son! To your tents, O Israel!” (I Kings 12:16). In both of these verses, the rebels claim that the monarchy has lost its legitimacy. There no longer remains any hope for the state of public life, they imply. Therefore, everybody might as well return to his tent—that is, to tending to his own personal interests.
These are but some of over one hundred instances in which tents appear in Tanakh. If we follow Ḥazal’s lead and treat these tents as symbols of privacy, we may uncover layers of meaning in our texts which had previously eluded us. In this section, we began to appreciate the potential benefits of this approach. Let us now narrow our focus and examine the significance that tents hold in the lives of the patriarch Yitzchak and of his loved ones, in particular.
Case Study: The Tent as a Symbol of Privacy in the Life of Yitzchak
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitzchak and his future wife, Rivkah, meet for the first time. Before they even speak, Yitzchak immediately ushers Rivkah into the tent of his mother, Sarah:
And Yitzchak brought [Rivkah] to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivkah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted for [the loss of] his mother (Gen. 24:67).
Many readers interpret Yitzchak’s gesture as an attempt to welcome Rivkah into his family. Rashi, however, cites two Midrashim which take our passage in a different direction:
“To the tent of Sarah his mother”—He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother… (Bereshit Rabbah 60:16)
“For… his mother”—It is the way of the world that, as long as a person’s mother is alive, he is attached to her, but as soon as she dies, he finds comfort in his wife (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 32).
In between the lines of these terse glosses lies the fascinating suggestion that Yitzchak views his marriage as an opportunity to fill the void created by his mother’s absence. The patriarch wants Rivkah to follow in Sarah’s footsteps—he wants her to become a “second Sarah,” as it were. That he should express this desire specifically by inviting his bride-to-be into the tent is most telling. Both of Yitzchak’s parents, after all, are described by the Bible with reference to a tent. But whereas Abraham stations himself “at the entrance of the tent” (Gen. 18:1), Sarah remains “inside the tent” (Gen. 18:9). Their positions reflect their personalities. Yitzchak’s father thrives in public; his mother, meanwhile, prefers privacy.
Abraham’s responsibilities take him beyond the circle of his immediate friends and family. He risks his life to rescue the captives of a war in which he had not been involved (see Gen. 14). He beseeches God to take mercy on the wicked inhabitants of Sodom (Gen. 18:17-23). He spares no luxury when hosting a group of travelling nomads (Gen. 18:6-8). He even prays for the welfare of those who have wronged him (Gen. 20:17). By contrast, Sarah fades anonymously into the background for much of Genesis. She follows Abraham to Canaan silently (Gen. 12:1-5). She surrenders herself to Pharaoh (Gen. 12:11-15) and later to Avimelech (Gen. 20:1-2) without saying a word. She voices no dissent as her husband prepares to sacrifice her only son (see Gen. 22)[ii]. Seldom do we as readers gain access into the matriarch’s inner world. Her thoughts and feelings remain forever her own.
Where does Yitzchak fit within this dynamic? All of the evidence suggests that Yitzchak takes after his mother. Like Sarah, Yitzchak travels through life in the shadow of Abraham’s fame. The verse which introduces Yitzchak’s biography reminds the reader—twice—that Abraham was his father (Gen. 25:19). Yitzchak’s first spoken word is avi, i.e. “my father” (Gen. 22:7); his last is “Abraham” (Gen. 28:4).[iii] As a youth, Yitzchak willingly sacrifices himself on the altar of Abraham’s ideals (see Gen. 21). As an adult, he dedicates himself to protecting Abraham’s legacy, re-digging his wells and renaming them in the fashion of his father (Gen. 26:18). Indeed, the only purpose for which Yitzchak ventures out into the world of his own accord is to meditate alone in a field (Gen. 24:64). Like Sarah, then, Yitzchak strikes us as contemplative and introverted[iv].
Some, like R. Binyamin Lau[v] and R. Shmuel Klitsner[vi], have raised the possibility that Yitzchak may have resented—or may, at least, have been adversely affected by—Abraham’s overbearing personality. But we need not adopt such a harsh interpretation in order to appreciate the challenges that he would have faced as his dominant father’s more reserved son. Maybe it is this backdrop against which we ought to understand his decision to bring Rivkah into Sarah’s tent. Yitzchak’s first act as a newlywed is, perhaps, an impassioned plea for privacy. The husband invites his wife into the tent hoping that she, like he, will find herself moved by its quiet and its serenity. He prays that Rivka will agree to raise their family outside of the limelight whose glare is threatening to blind him already at this early stage.
Yet it is too late for Yitzchak by this point. Though he may seek a soul mate whose personality resembles Sarah’s, it was his father, Abraham, whom he entrusted with finding him a wife—and, as R. Chanoch Waxman observes[vii], Rivkah is a carbon copy of her father-in-law. Like Abraham, Rivkah excels in providing hospitality to passersby. Both Abraham (Gen. 18:3) and Rivkah (Gen. 24:18) refer to their guests as their “masters;” both Abraham (Gen. 18:2) and Rivkah (24:20) “run” to serve their guests; both Abraham (Gen. 18:4) and Rivkah (24:34) request permission to wash the feet of their guests; both Abraham (Gen. 18:4) and Rivkah (24:33) provide their guests with shelter; both Abraham (Gen. 18:8) and Rivkah (24:33) serve their guests a meal; and both Abraham (Gen. 18:8) and Rivkah (24:18) offer their guests something to drink. Moreover, Rivkah emigrates from Haran to Canaan, separating herself from her homeland and from her father’s house just like Abraham had done decades prior. At the start of his journey, Abraham had received the command lekh lekha, i.e., “go for yourself” (Gen. 12:1). For her part, Rivkah declares elekh—“I shall go”—without prior command (Gen. 24:58). Before sending her off, however, Rivkah’s family blesses her to the effect that “your seed shall inherit the fate of its enemies” (Gen. 42:60). Only a few chapters earlier, an angel confers nearly the exact same blessing upon Abraham: “your seed shall inherit the gate of its foes” (Gen. 22:17)[viii].
In the second generation, then, everything becomes inverted: Yitzchak, the patriarch, adopts the passive, private persona of the matriarch, Sarah, while Rivkah, the matriarch, follows in the footsteps of the proactive, publically oriented patriarch, Abraham. But the irony does not cease there. Of the third generation, we read:
And the youths grew up, and Esav was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. And Yitzchak loved Esav because game was in his mouth, but Rivkah loved Yaakov (Gen. 25:27-8).
Against all of our expectations, Yitzchak, the introvert, “loves” Esav, the “man of the field,” while Rivkah, the extrovert, “loves” Yaakov—the “man of the tent.” When we include the relationship of Abraham and Sarah and the relationship of Yitzchak and Rivkah into the mix, we find that the pattern of “publically-oriented” personalities pairing off with “privately-oriented” ones has, by this point in the Torah, appeared three times already.
What message is our text trying to communicate?
Interpretation: The Tent as a Tenet of Jewish Nationhood
To truly appreciate the meaning of the “tent pattern” which we have identified in the Torah’s account of our patriarchs and matriarchs, perhaps we ought to broaden our focus beyond that narrow section of text.
Within each of us lies an impulse that draws us into society. However, we also need our solitude. Humans crave attention, but cherish anonymity; we want to be a part of the community, but also, at times, to be apart from it. This is one dimension of the delicate dialectic discussed by R. Joseph Soloveitchik in in his classic essay on the first two chapters of Genesis[ix]. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God warns Adam on the eve of Eve’s creation (Gen. 2:18). Yet, with a few notable exceptions, God never speaks to humans in the plural; throughout Tanakh, He tends to reveal Himself only to individuals—to the “lonely men and women of faith,” as it were. From this dichotomy we may deduce that both the public and the private self have a critical role to play in our avodat Hashem.
Through no accident, then, does the drama of this dichotomy dominate the narratives told of our forefathers and mothers. As Sarah, Abraham and their descendants sow the seeds of the Jewish nation, it is precisely the balance between the public and the private self that they must carefully preserve. On one hand, our Tanakh indicates that the greatness of klal Yisrael is sourced in its collective strength. At Sinai, God establishes His covenant with us as a people—not as individuals. In the land of Israel, He considers us as one unit when determining whether to bless us with economic prosperity and military success[x]. During Yom Kippur, the High Priest petitions for atonement on behalf of everybody. On Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot, we gather together in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival as a community. Even in the post-Temple period, a quorum of ten is required in order to discharge some of our most basic religious obligations in the optimal manner: kaddish, barechu, kedusha, chazarat hashatz, kri’at ha-Torah, birkat Kohanim, and sheva berachot are just some of the rituals which can only be performed in the presence of a minyan. To a large degree, the identity of a Jew is defined in terms of the group of which he or she is a part.
At the same time, God emphasizes, our greatness is not found only in our numbers[xi]. It is also found in the privacy of our tents. Whether as a metonym for the Beit Midrash[xii] or as a metaphor for the home[xiii], the tent is the place where we form the relationships that have sustained our nation for thousands of years. What was true in the days of Yitzchak and Rivkah remains true today. In all of our personal conversations with Hashem; in our efforts to claim, each of us, his or her own “letter in the scroll[xiv];” in the bonds between husbands and wives and between parents and children; and in the commitment of the family, as a unit, to open its door to guests, to grace its table with zemirot and words of Torah—to create, in short, a mishkan me’at in which the Shekhina is welcome to reside—therein lies the ultimate strength of the Jewish people.
[i] Interestingly, the text records that Moses “would take the Tent of Meeting and pitch it outside of the camp, far from the camp”—clearly a measure aimed at increasing the privacy of the prophetic encounter. See also, in this vein, Num. 11:26-7, wherein Eldad and Medad are explicitly criticized for “prophesizing in the camp” instead of “going out to the Tent of Meeting” to prophesize there. Just as the tent connotes privacy, perhaps intimacy, the camp apparently represents the “public sphere.” See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. by Thomas Burger (Massachusetts: MIT Press 2001).
[ii] In fact, some commentators suggest that Abraham never even informed Sarah that he was planning to sacrifice Yitzchak. See for example Rashi’s commentary to Gen. 23:2 and the Midrash which he cites.
[iii] Genesis 28:4. This point was made by Dr. Yael Ziegler in her online lectures, “Journeys, Wells and Marriages: Hidden Patterns in Biblical Stories.”
[iv] For an alternative reading of the Yitzchak narratives, however, see R. Amnon Bazak’s essay, “The Differences between Avraham and Yitzchak.”
[v] See Binyamin Lau,“The First Shidduch in Scripture: Hayyei Sarah 5770” (Hebrew).
[vi] See Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2006).
[vii] See Chanoch Waxman,“A Bride for Yitzchak: Discourse on the Narrative of Finding a Bride” (Hebrew).
[viii] Rivkah’s family substitutes sonei (“enemy”) for oyev (“foe”) but otherwise mimics the angel’s diction verbatim.
[ix] See Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006)
[x] See, for instance, Lev. 26.
[xi] See Deut. 7:7: “Not because you are more numerous than any people did the Lord delight in you and choose you, for you are the least of all the peoples.”
[xii] See Gen. 9:27. Targum Keter Yonatan ad loc. translates “tents of Shem” as “Torah academy (Midrash) of Shem.” See also Exod. 33:11, where Joshua is described as “a lad who would not depart from the tent.” The Talmud (Temurah 14a) comments: “[From here] God saw that the words of Torah were precious to Joshua.”
[xiii] This is how many commentators interpret, for example, the praise of Balaam, cited above.
[xiv] See Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion (New York: Free Press, 2000)