Balak: Seeing With Eyes Unveiled

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

The good news is that this week we’re
reading about everybody’s favorite sorcerer-for-hire, Balaam, who was
convinced by the king Balak to go and put a curse on the Israelites,
whom Balak feared would defeat his nation. Balaam goes on the mission,
but not before his donkey is derailed by an angel whom the animal sees
and the seer doesn’t- more on that theme later. Finally, when Balaam
does make it up to the mountaintop to behold the camp of the
Israelites, what comes out of his mouth is a great blessing, and not a
curse at all:

“Now Balaam, seeing that it was good in God’s eyes to bless Israel,
did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned
his face toward the wilderness. As Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw
Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.
Taking up his theme, he said:

‘Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Who has fallen down, but with has eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! . . . . ‘ ” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 24:1-5- my
modification of the JPS translation)

My translation makes more clear what’s obvious in the Hebrew, which is
that the theme of “eyes” and seeing is the dominant metaphor of the
passage. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch thinks that Balaam is being haughty in
reporting himself as one who “beholds visions” and has his “eyes
unveiled”, and compares him unfavorably to other prophets who were
perhaps more modest. Rashi think that when Balaam says that he is
“fallen down” (or prostrate, in the JPS translation) it means that God
only appears to him when he his lying down- that is, when he is
asleep, he has dream-visions.

While there is plenty of reason to be critical of Balaam, one could
also offer a more favorable reading of this passage, taking it in the
context of the earlier story, when he failed to see an angel with a
sword right in front of him, which his faithful donkey perceived
perfectly clearly. Perhaps Balaam was chastened and humbled in finding
out that a donkey could see things that he- a man of great fame- could
not, and perhaps this led him to see the world in new ways.

To me, the key phrase is the one in the beginning of chapter 24, which
tells us that Balaam saw what was good in the eyes of the Lord- to
bless Israel rather than curse it. He then “lifts up his eyes,” sees
the Israelites, and reports that he sees clearly- he is “has fallen
down, but has eyes unveiled.” To put it in different words, perhaps a
newly humbled Balaam, no longer believing solely in his own wisdom,
sees the world through God’s “eyes,”- that is, from a perspective of
hesed, lovingkindness, rather than conflict, which was the purpose of
his journey. Seeing the world through the prism of love and justice-
which is what I believe the Torah teaches us to do- is itself a
humbling experience, as the gratification of the self is de-centered
and the imperative of gemilut hassadim, acts of loving-kindness, takes
its place.

This, to me, is the meaning of “fallen down with eyes unveiled;” it
means to achieve the clarity that comes only with humility, with the
realization that there is a higher purpose and greater wisdom in the
world than one’s own. To see the world through the “eyes of the Lord”
means to thoroughly integrate into the self the spiritual values of
our tradition, such that where other see conflict, we see the
possibility of reconciliation; where others see the opportunity for
taking, we see instead the possibility of giving; where others speak
curses, we instead speak only words of blessing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


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