Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
In the midst of our book of wandering, we read of how a Moabite sovereign engages a seer from a distant land in the hopes of cursing and thus defeating the Israelites. In the central irony of a fanciful tale that opens with “[He] saw” (22:2), neither King Balak nor his hireling Balaam are able to “see” the Israelites. Balaam and Balak position and re-position themselves in an attempt to assess the multitude that “hides the earth from view” (22:5). The two travel from point to point without gaining the perspective they seek.
Only when the Holy One opens his eyes can Balaam see more than a portion of the people he has been sent to curse. He sees the tents that are the homes and the gathering places of the women, children, and men who live as a community marked by care and mutual respect. Seemingly stunned by his newfound perspective on the Israelite compound, Balaam describes the people in language that evokes Eden: “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).
Have the eyes of the desert diviner cleared sufficiently so that he can see a people who one day would have the power to make the desert bloom? Do his words reflect dreams of cities with palm-lined boulevards and garden neighborhoods that would, in the future, challenge and transform the arid landscape?
For a moment, Balaam sees a community as it can be: a society of mutual dependence and trust, a community where each person is treated with dignity, and he exclaims: Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov / mishk’notecha, Yisrael (“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel”; 24:5). But when Balaam extends his description, the utopian vision fades, and the people become just like any other who seek domination over their foes. He concludes, “Blessed are they who bless you, / Accursed they who curse you!” (24:9).