Rabbi Sherril Gilbert (2013)
The way that we view the world says much about our way of being in the world. How we choose to see people who are different from us inevitably determines our response to them – how we think about them, how we talk about them, and how we treat them.
This thread of “seeing” runs through much of this week’s Torah portion, called Balak. From the very first words, vayar Balak/and Balak saw, ways of seeing and relating to the “other” becomes a powerfully subtle teaching. From what I can tell, there are 28 references in this reading to eyes or seeing, seeing/not seeing, eyes open/eyes closed.
Our story begins with the strange and sometimes comical adventure of a prophet named Bilaam hired by the Moabite king Balak to go and curse the Israelites. The King is hostile to the Israelite nomads, afraid of their growing numbers and strength. The prophet, however, cannot imagine that God wants him to go on the king’s mission. At first he refuses to go, but God comes to him in a dream, telling him to proceed on the condition that during the journey he must listen for and respond to the word of God.
Along the way, God sends an angel messenger to warn Bilaam against cursing the Israelites. So at one point, the donkey stops dead in her tracks. Her path is blocked by this angel that only she can see. Bilaam does not yet see the angel, who orders the animal to change course. The donkey obeys. The angel again blocks the path. This happens three times. And each time, Bilaam loses his temper and swats the donkey with a stick to try to convince her to move. Bilaam still doesn’t get it. Finally God gives the donkey the power of speech. The donkey turns to Bilaam and says, “What have I done to you that you should treat me this way?”
And this is what happens next: Vayigal Hashem et einai Vilam – God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes, so that he now can see the angel standing before him, the angel that his donkey has been seeing all along.
Bilaam now sees clearly, and bows to the ground. God tells him to continue on what eventually will become Bilaam’s path of blessing, and again reminds the prophet to pay careful attention to God’s word.
When Bilaam finally reaches the place where the Israelites are camped, he instructs the king to build seven altars and offer seven bulls and seven rams. Bilaam then stands before King Balak, surrounded by all the king’s dignitaries, and is preparing to speak. But now, remember, his eyes are open. Now, he can really pay attention, and so, despite Balak’s orders to curse the Israelites and their encampment, profound words of blessing flow through and out of him.
This same thing happens three more times, each time Balak is enraged, each time he keeps asking Bilaam to curse the Israelites, with the same result – words of blessing instead of curses. The story begins to look like a Marx Brothers movie.
But: Vayigal Hashem et einai Vilam – God has uncovered Bilaam’s eyes. Now, he is able to see more than just a portion of the people he has been sent to curse. And stunned by his newfound perspective on the Israelite encampment, Bilaam proceeds to describe the people in a language of beauty and diversity that evokes the Garden of Eden: He says the people are, “like palm-groves that stretch out / like gardens beside a river / like aloes planted by God / like cedars beside the water / their boughs drip with moisture / their roots have abundant water” (24:6-7).
And in that one precious moment, Bilaam looks out and sees a people so different from anything else he has ever seen, that he is overcome with awe and a holy sense of infinite possibilities. In that one precious moment, he sees twelve diverse tribes perfectly organized into one nation. He sees the tents that are the homes and the gathering places of the people who live as a community in all its glorious potential: diverse people drawn together in mutual inter-dependence and trust, a community where each person is valued and appreciated for their inherent and unique qualities, gifts, and skills, where each person is treated with dignity and respect and honour. Here is a people who see the Divine Image not only within themselves, but also within every living being. Each person is seen as exceptional. Each person is seen as holy.
How we see others and how we see ourselves comes to be the tension in the parasha. The point is made that the nature of our seeing has a deep impact on the world around us, and on the earth itself. That the way of our seeing and being in the world are one is expressed ultimately in the realm of human relationships. The prescription is right here, in our text: open your eyes. How we see one another, through our differences, our diversities, our uniquenesses, is a choice we make in every moment. It is said that it is not our differences that divide us, it is our judgments about one another that does that.
Unable to curse, his eyes now open, Bilaam speaks the definitive words that describe and ascribe wholeness in all of our relationships, personal and collective, in home and synagogue: mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mish’k’notecha Yisra’el / how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
The words of Bilaam, the prophet-for-hire, offer an ideal vision of who we might become.
Seeing ourselves through the unveiled eyes of another, the way toward our becoming is set forth as a precious life path. How we can accomplish this is revealed in the haftarah reading for this week, from the prophet Micah. In one short phrase, Micah gives us advice and guides us how to be in holy relationship with others:
Higid l’cha adam, mah tov u’mah Hashem doresh mimcha… / It has been told to you, O mortal, what is good and what God seeks of you: only to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk with humility. [Micah 5:6-6:8]
May we all have the ability and make the choice to see the goodness, the beauty, the uniqueness in others, no matter how different they might be from us, and may we learn to appreciate, value and celebrate those differences. Choosing to see diverse beauty in the world, we come to see the Source of all that is, and in the faces of those we encounter, we come to recognize what is sacred. May this way of seeing become our way of being and becoming in the world, walking humbly in holiness with one another.
Sources and inspiration from:
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, Short Takes, 2012, 2010
Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt
Balak: Seeing the World Through Trusting Eyes by Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Listening with the Heart by Carol Hwoschinsky
Teaching Diversity by Gallos et al
Making Contact by Virginia Satir
Turning to One Another by Margaret Wheatley