In this week’s parasha, we find Balak, the king of Moab, “seeing” what the Israelites did to the Amorites and is alarmed. He looks out at the large collection of Israelite tents encamped near him, and he is filled with dread. The Israelites are a “horde” of foreigners who will devour everything them.
Balak sends messengers to the prophet Balaam with an invitation to put a curse upon the Israelites. Now Balak acts on his perception and the fearful story that he has created in his mind about the Israelites, inviting Balaam to bring a curse on the Israelites. Balaam doesn’t immediately accept the invitation. In fact, God comes to him and tells him not to go. But Balak sends a second delegation of messengers and dignitaries to press Balaam. And this time, God allows him to go but is clear that, “whatever I [God] command you, you shall do”
As Balaam makes his way to Moab, we have the satirical episode where his donkey sees an angel blocking the road, holding a sword. The donkey swerves and then presses up against a wall and then lays down under Balaam, to avoid this angel. Balaam doesn’t see the angel and beats his ass. And in a hilarious moment, God opens the donkey’s mouth, and she speaks to Balaam, asking why he is treating her so harshly. Finally, God uncovers Balaam’s eyes, and he can see the angel standing in front of them.
On the one hand, this episode is puzzling. Since God has given Balaam permission to go on this mission, why would God play this game with him by placing the angel there and making him blind to it? The traditional answer is that this is satire. We are probably meant to see Balaam as a blind, ignorant “ass” who can’t even see what his own donkey can see.
But perhaps there’s more going on here, about how our minds work, and how our ‘seeing’ can be conditioned? This whole story begins with king Balak’s mis-perception of the Israelites being conditioned by his dread of them.
But even more telling is the fact that as Balaam rides his ass, his eyes are closed. It is as if he is asleep or disconnected from what is happening. To be sure, he is following God’s orders, … but is he following them sleepily? By placing the angel there, God forces the ass to jolt Balaam awake out of his stupor. To truly curse (or bless) the Israelites, Balaam needs to be awake, to get up close, and to really see the Israelites, clearly and directly, for himself. When he does finally arrive at the heights from which he can view the Israelites, Balaam’s “eye is true,” and he cannot help but bless them.
In the end, Balak’s perception that Balaam will be able to curse the Israelites is false. Moab has nothing to worry about. In the next chapter, we see that Moab and their idolatrous practices are more of a danger to the Israelites than the Israelites are to Moab.
So much of the way we form opinions, understand issues, decide where we stand, how to vote, and how to engage in the world – all of it flows from how we see. Do we see ourselves, others, and the world the way others have primed us or the way we have been otherwise conditioned to see? Or do we get up close to see clearly for ourselves what is happening inside of us and outside of us?
As we saw in this week’s parasha, Balak had formed his own impressions of the Israelites as totally being divorced from reality. Notwithstanding Balak’s pre-conceived notion of the Israelites, Balaam needed to get ‘up close’ to the Israelites to know how he was going to relate to them.
Similarly, it is vital that we can clearly see ourselves and our own suffering before we can then see another and his or her suffering. How skillfully we act in the world depends greatly on whether we are engaged in ‘honest seeing’. How we see shapes how we perceive the strengths and weaknesses in ourselves and in others, whether we judge ourselves or others as worthy of blessing, whether we can feel safe and free from fear, and whether we can discern that a situation requires boundaries, or restraint.
And maybe then, we can say of ourselves what Balaam says of himself – “that our eyes are true, and that our seeing is unveiled.”