Parashat Balak 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Balak
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

“Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” (מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר; Num. 24:9) – these are the words that conclude one of Bilaam’s blessings to Israel. This poetic proclamation harks back to God’s blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and curse the one who curses you…” (וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר). Blessing begets blessing and curse begets curse. But what does this mean? Is it simply a statement of reciprocity and retaliation? What you do to me I shall do to you? Or perhaps there is more to this statement than meets the eye.

After making this proclamation, Bilaam responds to Balak’s anger with another poetic statement, “Word of Bilaam son of Be’or, word of the man whose eye is true, word of one who hears God’s speech, who obtains knowledge from the Most High, and beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled…” (Num. 24:15-16). Bilaam goes on to speak about his vision of the future; but what I find intriguing is the fact that despite Bilaam’s earlier assertions that he is unable to deviate from what God intends (e.g., Num. 22:38), nevertheless here Bilaam claims the words as his own. As we might expect, he is able to speak the words because he “hears God’s speech,” but why does he emphasize his visions and his eyes being unveiled (employing the very unusual word שָׁתוּם)? Perhaps the story means to draw our attention to sight and vision. Indeed, this is a running theme throughout the parasha.

Towards the very beginning of the parasha, Balak sends a message to Bilaam that “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view” (כִסָּה אֶת־ עֵין הָאָרֶץ; Num. 22:5) – perhaps literally it covers the “eye” of the earth (BDB, entry עין 4a; pg 744). The phrase is repeated just a few verses later in Num. 22:11. The other main instance in which covering the “eye” of the earth appears in the Torah is with regard to the plague of locust in Egypt (Exod. 10:5 and 10:15). The allusion seems intentional – Balak sees the hordes of Israelites as locust, covering the land and devouring its produce.

As we progress further into the parasha, we encounter a more famous instance of seeing, the episode of the talking donkey. The donkey sees what Bilaam cannot, the angel of God. Eventually God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes and he is able to see the angel as well (Num. 22:31), leading him to change his attitude towards the poor animal he had been beating.

A third key instance of seeing appears as Balak continually attempts to get Bilaam to curse the Israelites. After Bilaam blesses them, Balak moves him to another position where he will have a different view of the people: “Then Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them—you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them—and damn them for me from there” (Num. 23:13). Balak appears to believe that by limiting Bilaam’s view, allowing him to only see a portion of the Israelites (אֶפֶס קָצֵהוּ תִרְאֶה), this will enable Bilaam to finally curse the people. But this attempt fails and when Balak asks Bilaam what God told him, Bilaam responds, “No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel” (Num. 23:21) employing two different terms for seeing (הִבִּיט and רָאָה).

So what do we learn from all of these references to seeing and how does this connect with our initial question about blessings and curses? I would suggest that a core message of this parasha is that we perpetuate what we see, be it blessing or curse. Balak sees the people as locust, a curse for him and his land, and thus strives to curse them in return. At first Bilaam cannot see how the donkey acts in his best interest and, seeing the donkey as mocking him (הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; Num. 22:29), he lashes out. Once his eyes are opened and he understands, he is able to see his own fault. Finally, when Bilaam blesses the people, Balak is aware of the fact that changing how we see something or someone impacts how we respond and he hopes to change blessing to curse by changing Bilaam’s perspective. But ultimately Balak fails because Bilaam’s eyes are open and he sees the truth, even when only glimpsing the people.

Balak sees a curse and responds in kind. Bilaam sees a curse until his eyes are opened, at which point he sees blessings even when only glimpsing part of the reality. The actions of these figures teach us that we perpetuate what we see.

“Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” This is more than a statement of reciprocity. In our parasha this allusion to Abraham’s blessing informs us that by seeing blessing we respond in kind and by so doing we ourselves become blessed – but if we only see curses, then we can only respond with curses and in so doing bring curses back upon ourselves.

So what can this mean for us today? What we see impacts how we respond, which in turn impacts how others will respond to us. I urge us to strive for the blessing that God bestows upon Abraham – “you shall be a blessing” (וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה; Gen. 12:2). By being a blessing, we can work towards that ultimate goal of sharing that blessing with the world – “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen. 12:3). But it begins, as our parasha teaches us, with being able to see the blessings around us. May we be blessed to see the blessings, even when we feel surrounded by curses, so that we can magnify those blessings for ourselves, those around us, and ultimately the world.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.