Parashat Balak

Distance and Proximity

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

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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: "Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel encamped according to its tribes."

Look the "Other" in the Eye

Rashi explains that Bilaam 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."

Bilaam 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.

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Julia Appell is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. She participated in the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation to El Salvador in 2007.