From the Bamat: Parashat Balak

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The wonderful thing about the summer parshiyot—The Camp Torah, as I sometimes think of it—is how many famous narratives we encounter during our time together in Wingdale, especially in the early weeks.  Once we get into Deuteronomy, there are fewer narrative sections and more legal ones (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but these chapters of Bamidbar (Numbers) are particularly rich in indelible characters, dire situations and meaningful moments.  This week, for example, we read the story of the King Balak (from whom the parasha takes its name) and his hired holy man Balaam, he of the uncertain loyalty and the talking donkey.  Balaam famously blesses the Israelites when he has in fact been paid to curse them, and his words of praise contain some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible, including some phrases that have made their way into our daily prayer.  Each morning, as campers begin their teilfot (prayers) with the words mah tovu ohalecha yaakov (“How fair are your tents Jacob!”) they are quoting the words of this freelance prophet/sorcerer whose words, though paid for by Balak, remained always the property of God.

One downside to the fame of these narratives is that we can miss important details because we know the broad contours of the stories so well. For example, because the words of Balaam have become so famous—not just his extolling of the beauty of our tents became well known but also his assertion that Israel as a “people that dwells apart” also seemed to resonate through our history—it is easy to overlook a running theme through this entire parasha: what is seen and what is unseen. The narrative begins with sight; Balak “saw all that Israel had done to the Israelites.” (22:2)  This vision before his eyes inspires him to call upon Balaam to stop the advancing horde, but what is interesting is that Balak’s eyes may have betrayed him.  After all, Israel only fought the Amorites when attempts to negotiate peaceful passage has failed, and it is not at all clear that the Israelites mean Balak any harm. He sees them advance, and assumes he knows what they intend.

Balaam’s eyes betray him as well.  On the journey from his home to the court of Balak, his donkey can see the angel of God standing in his way, but Balaam cannot, leading the man to beat the animal so severely (and unjustly) that the donkey finally breaks his silence and speaks.  At this point, God “uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way.”  (22:31) As with Balak, Balaam has misperceived the situation, this time through not seeing what others—the donkey at least—could see.

But it is in the moments of Balaam’s curses turned blessings that the theme of sight most asserts itself.  At each stage, Balaam goes to a place where he can “see” the people.  In his JPS commentary, Jacob Milgrom notes that the power of the curse only seems to be effective is the object of the curse is within sight.  After Balaam’s first attempt goes so badly awry (from his employer’s perspective at any rate) the King moves the prophet to a different location, explicitly in the hopes that seeing Israel from a different angel will produce a different result.  It does not.  The sight of Israel—from any angle or vantage point—seems to have the effect of transforming whatever words of curse Balaam may have wanted to utter into words of blessing. Again, the visual perception of the characters matter a great deal, and while Balak can only see a people in need of a curse, Balaam is capable only of seeing a people deserving of a blessing.

We often here that “what you see is what you get” by which we mean that all we need to know is before our eyes.  The Torah seems to think that is not the case.  We can be blind to the things we need to see, and it is also the case that our eyes can deceive us into thinking we know more than we do.  Our parasha reminds us that either mistake can cause trouble, whether it is making an enemy out of someone who bore us no ill will or causing a donkey to have to talk to us against all laws of nature.  But the parasha also gives us another way to understand “what you see is what you get.”  Balak gazed upon Israel and saw only a foe, in return, he got an enemy.  Balaam looked out on the Israelite tents and saw a blessing; his reward is to have his poetry recalled every day in our morning prayers.  If we seek to see the best in people, we have a better chance of getting their best in their dealings with us.  If we look out onto world that has blessings to offer, we may find ourselves more often in receipt of those blessings.  What you choose to see is what you get.  And perhaps that is why we remember Balaam so early in the morning, as we begin each day.  To remember that the world, when viewed from the right angle, with the right eyes, is filled with beauty and with joy and with blessing.  We can choose to see that blessing and then we can work to fill our lives with it. We hope to instill that knowledge in our chanichim (campers) this summer; we hope to show them a world suffuse with blessings.  We hope that they will see this world, because there is much importance in the seeing. After all, as Balak and Balaam discovered, what you see is what you get.