Acclaimed author William F. Buckley, Jr. was greatly enamored of sailing and often wrote about the centrality of that pastime in forming his outlook on life. At one point he sailed a boat that carried the name, “Quarentzia.” Quarentzia, it seems, is an unusual phenomenon taken from, of all places, the hot and dusty commotion of a Spanish bull-fighting ring. Apparently, no matter how chaotic Mr. Bull’s life would get – dealing with Senor Matador’s prodding and taunting; coping with the cheers and jeers of throngs of rowdy spectators – there was always one place in the ring that Mr. Bull would feel completely at ease. An innate inner calm amidst the swirling storm. A tangible serenity despite the hostile environment. A place to escape to and re-group.
By all accounts, the wicked prophet Balaam ranks high on the list of Am Yisrael’s arch-enemies. While his diabolical scheme to eradicate our Nation never came to fruition, he was ultimately responsible for the loss of 24,000 Jewish lives. Given Balaam’s disdainfulness, I find it unusual how frequently his “praise” of the K’lal Yisrael appears in the course of our davening.
Every year we encounter Balaam in our Rosh Hashanah Musaf, “Hashem … is with him [i.e., Ya’akov], and the friendship of the King is in him.” (23:21). We find the Sages seriously considered uploading Balaam’s words directly into the daily reading of Shema (the ultimately opted against in on account of its lengthiness). And perhaps, most famously, the words that so many of us utter as when step over the threshold into shul each morning….
“How goodly are your tents , O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.” 24:5.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105) explains that these “tents” and “dwelling places” actually refer to our shuls and batei medrashim. Moreover, the Gemara explains that these bastions of spirituality and communal connectivity would endure throughout the long and bitter exile.
Who doesn’t feel an innate sense of camaraderie upon walking into a shul (if you don’t, maybe it’s time to consider changing shuls or, at least, changing your attitude). I recall being in the French Riviera (a town called Ni’ce which actually was rather nice) and spending Yom Kippur with French Yidden with whom I shared no common language and no common culture. Needless to say, we did share Kol Nidrei in common. Our Shema was identical. And the reading of Yonah was completely in synch. We could barely communicate and yet I felt completely at home. Ditto for shuls from La Jolla to Raleigh to Florence. A universal home away from home.
With life spinning at an ever-increasing pitch, the opportunities for inward serenity are becoming more and more necessary yet harder and harder to come by. In order to re-boot, re-set and re-engage life from a vantage point of balance and resourcefulness, it behooves each and every one of us to find that particular space and place that can serve as our personal Quarentzia.
And you need not seek your Quarentzia in a bull ring (or a yacht). Rather, for many of us, a shul, yeshiva or beis medrash possesses a unique, somewhat inexplicable capacity to generate peacefulness and menuchas ha’nefesh. Grounding.
There is a certain shul that occupies such a special place in my life. It is 200 miles away. I visit once year. And yet it is always available – mentally, at least – to retreat to and find menuchah, quietude and re-alignment. Between you and me (don’t tell anyone), just listening to the shul’s answering machine, “We have a daily morning minyan at 6:30 and 7:30 …” jettisons me to a place of clarity, confidence and conviction to re-engage life’s challenges. The light of the shul. The Rav. The dedicated and earnest souls that pour out their hearts to Hashem and dedicate their lives to one another. It’s priceless. It’s personal. And it’s essential.
Such is the Eternal promise that Hashem conveyed via a most unlikely spokesperson, Balaam. Our shuls are treasures. They light up the night of Exile like a lighthouse beaconing rays of hope to storm-tossed shipmen seeking a harbor in the tempest. Seek and ye shall find a place of menuchah amidst these soul-soothing “tents” and “dwelling places.” The chandeliers are optional. The marble floors are merely a bonus. Some shuls are makeshift. Some are grandiose. Some are teeming with new members. Some are a faint echo of what they were in yester-year.
But they boast at least one thing in common, i.e., the opportunity to meet Hashem, to regain clarity and to emerge inspired to meet the challenges of life. See, once again, “how goodly” are those tents and what awaits those who are wise-hearted enough to capitalize upon these “tents” of clarity.