Friday, July 6, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha


Seeing Too Much of Yourself in Others

Parashat Balak is the only parasha in the Torah which provides us with an outsider's view of Children of Israel. As such, it affords us with a perspective not only on how others see us, but also on how others see, that is, on other ways of seeing.

The parasha begins with Balak, King of Moab, who sees "all that Israel had done to the Amorites".   Now, the Torah has already told us that Israel had attempted to pass peacefully through the Amorite land to get to the Land of Canaan and that only when they were attacked did they fight back and then conquer the territory that they now possessed. If Balak had been thinking rationally and objectively, he would have realized that he had nothing to be fearful of. And yet, "Moab became very frightened of the people and Moab was distressed because of the Children of Israel" (Bamidbar 22:3). What Balak, and indeed all of Moab, saw was not a nation trying to pass through, but rather a threat to their security and well-being.

What is even more striking is that they had concrete evidence that the Israelites were not interested in waging war against them. For as we find out in Devarim, and as is recorded in Shoftim (11:17), Moshe had previously sent emissaries to Moab requesting safe passage throughout the land (Devarim 2:29), and, when denied, he and the Israelites had circumvented the Moabite lands (Devarim 2:9-10). What reason, then, did Moab have to be fearful? The answer is none. And yet, they saw as we all do, subjectively, and they projected their own belligerent character onto others.   If the Moabites had conquered such vast lands, then they certainly would not hold back from conquering all the surrounding territory as well. It was this seeing, a reflection of themselves, that lead to their fear and their actions.

This theme also emerges from Balak's initial failed attempts to recruit Balaam. Balaam had told Balak's messengers that he could not return with them because "God has refused to let me go with you" (22:13). On hearing this, Balak must have believed that this was merely a pretext, for he proceeds to send officers "more and higher ranking" than the first ones. Rashi (22:13) states that Balak was picking up on a hint that Balaam had dropped, but it seems more likely that Balak was just projecting his own character and motivations onto Balaam. For him, for Balak, it would have all been about money and honor, and thus he assumes the same is true for Balaam. What you see, so often, is really a reflection of what you yourself are.

It is one thing when we project our own pettiness or our character flaws onto others and think the worse of them for it. It is another thing when we bring God into it.   For how should our relationship with God affect how we see others?   Connecting to God can help us see more clearly what is good in this world, and also what is bad. What we do with that, however, is a function of who we are.   If we are inclined to see the bad in others, then it is possible that this can lead to seeing others and their actions as not just flawed, but as religiously abhorrent. If, on the other hand, we are not so petty, then our connection to God will help us see the spark of holiness that can exist in every individual; it will help us see what is pure and what is beautiful.

There are two ways, then, of looking at the world religiously. The first way brings about a curse, the second way, a blessing. The first way is what results when we bring our own selves, our own mean-spiritedness, into the equation, when we are actually seeing with our own sight, but using God to justify it. The second way is when we strive to see as God sees, it is when we see the world "that it is good"; it is when we allow ourselves to see the holiness that infuses all of creation.

The first way is the way of Balaam. Balaam is, as the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:17) teaches us, a person of an evil, or one may say, a mean-spirited, eye. He knows his own craven desires, and this is all he can see in others as well. Balaam describes himself as "the man with an open eye" (24:3), not "open eyes", to which the Rabbis comment that he had been blinded in one eye (Niddah 31a). Why? Because he could not understand how a holy God could look at the sexual life of a husband and wife.   Balaam's own inability to see the holiness in such a union, his ability to see in it only something profane, was his own shortcoming. And yet he projected it on God: "How could it be that the One who is pure and holy... should look at such things?" he asks, according to the Talmud.   He was indeed partially blind, only able to see the world through his narrow vantage point, and not in its fullness and its beauty.

Balaam thus sets out to curse the Israelites. It is his hope that he can use God to serve his ends. He tries time and again to manipulate the circumstances so that he can see the people in a negative way. He wants to only see their margins, their periphery (22:41 and again in 23:13). Balaam knows however, that God has other plans, and that what he is able to do, whether what he says will be a blessing or a curse, will depend on "what God shows me" (23:3), what and how he will see. And, indeed, God does make him see otherwise: "Behold from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him" (23:9). He is made to see the Israelites from above, in their entirety. He is not allowed to see them as he normally would, narrowly, with one eye, picking out the bad to criticize and to curse.

When one sets out with a narrow vision, with a mean-spirited eye, then one's invoking of God will likely result in a curse.   However, if one truly strives to connect to God and to see the world as God does, then the curse can turn into a blessing. On his third excursion, Balaam realizes this and he chooses to no longer attempt to use God to serve his ends, but to truly see the world through God's lens. "And when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness." (24:1). He was not going to manipulate God, he was going to look directly at the Israelites in the Wilderness and see them as they truly were. And, thus: "And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him" (24:2). He saw them in their diversity, in their unity, for he was now seeing them with "his eyes", not with a limited vision, but with a full vision, with both of his eyes.

When Balaam chose to see thusly it was then that he was filled "with the spirit of God." It was then that he was filled with a sense of the beauty of creation and the good that is in people. And it was then that he articulated this abiding goodness, in a verse that we repeat every day before entering a synagogue: "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel" (24:5).   The connection to the synagogue, to a place of God's abiding, should fill us with the spirit of God, should allow us to see God in the world, and should evoke in us the proclamation: mah tovu, how goodly! How goodly is Thy world, how goodly is all of Thy creation!

Such a seeing, a seeing of blessing, does not need to be naïve. It does not mean that we must believe that there is no evil in the world. There is evil, and it needs to be rooted out. Indeed, the verse is Psalms declares that "God is wrathful every day" (Psalms 7:12). But as the Gemara in Berakhot clarifies: "And how long is the wrath? For a moment." (Berakhot 7a). Balaam, according to this passage, knew exactly that moment that God was angry. Balaam’s goal was to capitalize on that moment of wrath.  To make that his – and God’s – defining character.  Sometimes wrath is needed, sometimes there is true evil and righteous indignation is called for. But if one sees as God does, then that should be a tiny, tiny part of one's life. "And how long is one moment?," asks the Gemara, "One fifty-eight thousand eight hundred and eighty-eighth part of an hour".

It is our obligation to bring about blessing, to see what is good in the world, to bring it to the surface, to praise it. If we see the good, others will as well, and the good will spread. The world has more than enough people who are "defenders of the faith", who are prepared to attack anyone they see as deviating from the true faith, who are on guard against all the real and perceived evil out there. What the world needs is more people who are spreaders of the faith. Who understand that the way goodness will prevail, is by seeing goodness and spreading it. "Behold it is my charge to bless, and I will bless, and not take it back" (23:20).

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