Open Your Eyes

The prophet Balaam's curse, which becomes a blessing, is a reflection of the relationship between God and the Israelites.

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Exhausted from a journey that seems to have no end, the Israelite men forget who they are. They forget their privileged relationship with the One who brought them out of slavery. Balaam's recognition of balak donkey open your eyesIsrael's goodness has become part of our liturgy known as the Mah tovu (literally "how good are"): Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov / mishk'notecba, Yisrael ("How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!").

The rabbis who created our liturgy recognized the power of this sentence, and so they intentionally positioned it as the opening of a daily prayer sequence that fixes the individual in the context of the community of Israel. They expand Balaam's blessing with four verses from Psalms written in the first person. In so doing, they enable each worshipper to claim a place as a member of the collective.

I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house;
I bow down in awe at Your holy temple (Psalm 5:8).
"God, I love Your temple abode,
The dwelling-place of Your glory (Psalm 26:8).
Let me bow down and kneel before God my maker (Psalm 95:6).
As for me, may my prayer come to You, O God"
At a favorable moment;
o God,
in Your abundant faithfulness,
Answer me with Your sure deliverance (Psalm 69:14).

With these phrases, the rabbis transform Balaam's God of war into a God of chesed (lovingkindness), and each Jew who utters these words becomes the prayer. In the parashah, Balaam follows his original utterance of the verse with two descriptions of Israel: an Israel that lives in a lush and verdant world, and a nation that is victorious against enemies.

But Balaam's utterance is also incomplete, which is why our liturgy expands it--and also shifts the focus to the relationship of the individual with God.

I propose a third reading, one that returns to the evocation of the community as a source of power and that extends it, connecting the people with God and with their unique challenge. Consider the following combination of 24:5 with the words from the book of Isaiah:

How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob,
Your dwelling places, 0 Israel! (24:5)
I, the Holy One, have called you in righteousness,
and taken you by the hand.
I am the One who created you
and made you a covenant people,
a light to the nations:
to open eyes that are blind,
to bring the captive out of confinement (Isaiah 42:6-7).

This clear challenge invites us to move beyond the narrow, dichotomous thinking that blinded Balak and Balaam in this portion. These verses from Isaiah anticipate-and fulfill-the subsequent prophetic call about tents and dwellings: "Enlarge the space for your tent (oholech); / do not spare the canvas for your dwelling-place (mishk'notayich)" (Isaiah 54:2).

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Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles. She served as the first rabbinic Director of Ma'yan, the Jewish Women's Project of the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side in New York City.