Distance and Proximity

The story of King Balak and Balaam demonstrates that truly seeing others is what allows fears to dispel.

Commentary on Parashat Balak, Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

Parashat Balak features a remarkable turn of events: King Balak of Moab summons the soothsayer Balaam to curse the Israelites, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.  Come then, put a curse upon this people for me.” Balaam, however, is told by God, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”

When Balaam sees the Israelites encamped he blesses them. Not only does he bless them once, but he rejects King Balak’s order three separate times, each time blessing the Israelite people again. King Balak spends much time trying to convince Balaam to curse the people. His strategy, which is doomed to fail, is nonetheless worthy of attention.

From the Lookout Point

When King Balak meets Balaam, he takes him up to the lookout point at Bamot Baal from which Balaam can see “the extent of the nation.” Here, for the first time, Balaam sees the Israelite camp instead of only hearing about it from King Balak. The Israelites are no longer abstract to him and he cannot demonize them or curse them the way King Balak hopes he will. Balaam even comes to identify with the Israelites in a way, saying “let my end be like his.”

King Balak, determined, tries again to make Balaam curse the Israelites, yet his tactic is puzzling. King Balak could have responded to the disobedience of Balaam in many ways, yet he chooses to take Balaam “to another place from where you will see them. But you will see only a part of them, without seeing them all, and curse them for me from there.”

His choice relates to sight. King Balak believes that a change in Balaam’s view of the people may enable Balaam to curse them. What might contribute to King Balak’s belief that Balaam’s view of the people will be of such influence?

In the Near East at this time, it was thought that the object of a curse needed to be in sight in order for the curse to work. This offers an explanation as to why King Balak repeatedly takes Balaam to different vantage points without ever blocking Balaam’s vision entirely. Perhaps King Balak, watching Balaam disobey him the first time, realizes that the particular view of the Israelite camp contributes to Balaam’s kindness toward the Israelites and his identification with them.

Thus, the second vantage point chosen by King Balak is one in which Balaam sees only a small portion of the people. King Balak’s apparent hope is that this view is enough for the curse to be effective but limited enough to prevent Balaam from feeling an identification with the Israelites that will prevent him from cursing them. The plan, of course, fails.

King Balak tries a third time. This time, unfortunately for King Balak, Balaam chooses his own vantage point, one from which he again sees the entire people. Not only does he see “the extent of the nation,” he sees details about how they interact with one another: “Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel encamped according to its tribes.”

Look the “Other” in the Eye

The commentator Rashi explains that Balaam saw even more than just that they arranged themselves by tribe:

He saw that every tribe dwelled by itself and they didn’t intermingle, he saw that their [tent] openings were not facing each other, so that one could not peek into the tent of his friend.

This is one of the most commonly cited explanations of why Balaam blesses them specifically with the blessing “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

Balaam had a glimpse of how the Israelites lived together, how they cared for each other’s privacy. At a proximity from which he could see distinctly which way the tent entrances were facing, perhaps he could also see cooking fires and playing children. Perhaps in some way, the Near Eastern belief that, for a curse to be effective, the object of the curse had to be in plain sight, was, in fact, a way to limit curses.

Balaam was given orders by God not to curse the people, yet we see through his words and actions that Balaam was not simply following God’s instruction. Seeing the Israelites fully, Balaam, “whose eye is true,” blessed them with a sense of identification. Balaam’s act of seeing the Israelites made apparent to him their humanity.

Just as King Balak was afraid of the people “settled next to” him, today there are individuals, communities, and nations that fear their neighbors. This fear has led to many conflicts, to violence, and to human atrocity. The story of King Balak and Balaam demonstrates that truly seeing others is what allows fears to dispel. Reconciliation work involves bringing people together to see each other’s communities.

In order to build connections and wear down hatred we must see others from the appropriate vantage point, one from which we can appreciate their history, their community, and their values. Balaam heard God’s voice say that the Israelites were a blessed people. Today, without God’s word reminding us, it is easy to fall into the trap of demonizing those whom we don’t know. We must learn from King Balak’s misguided hatred. Seeing a people fully is what transforms curse into blessing.

This week may we rededicate ourselves to seeing new vantage points so that we may notice the full humanity of all people around us.

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.


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