“Finding Balance in Parashat Balak” by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
Summer often brings great weather, but sometime factors combine to create a horrifically destructive storm. Then we see only too clearly that challenging times bring out the best and worst in people on a magnified scale. Rescuers arrive en masse, but so do opportunists. These gold-diggers and carpetbaggers are just looking to make a buck off of someone else's misery.
This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak tells the tale of one of the original opportunists, Bilaam. The King of Moab, a man named Balak, gets super anxious when he sees that the Jewish nation will be traveling close to his territory on the way to the Holy Land after almost 40 years in the desert. He hires the prophet Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. Was Bilaam for real? The commentaries debate whether he was a prophet or a sorcerer, a liar or a fake. Bilaam tries to cover all his bases. He wants permission from G-d to curse the Jews and payment from Balak for a job that he's not sure he can do.
Bilaam opens his mouth to curse the Jewish people but only praises emanate. He begins by saying, "The words of Bilaam son of Beor, the words of the man with the open eye." "Why?" the Sages ask, does he say "eye," singular, instead of "eyes," plural? The simple understanding is that Bilaam was blind in one eye. The Sages, with great insight into human nature, unfold an incredibly meaningful metaphor.
Bilaam lacked the full perspective, the ability to see the good and the bad, the challenge, the responsibility and the opportunity. Bilaam saw things with one eye, an eye that was turned only toward himself. Blinded by his desire for riches, he led Balak to believe that he could effectively deliver a curse. He thought that he could fool G-d into believing that he was just along for the ride. Even Bilaam's donkey had greater vision. When the donkey saw an angel blocking the road the donkey tried to set Bilaam straight.
Perhaps the Sages were teaching us that we are given two eyes, one to look outward and one to look inward. Bilaam only looked at himself. His goal had nothing to do with Balak and the people of Moab, nothing to do with G-d, nothing to do with Moses and the Jewish people traveling toward the Holy Land. His goals were self-glorification, self-promotion and self-enrichment courtesy of the treasury of Moab.
How often do our wants, desires and wishes blind us to truth? It is so hard to set our selves aside, to keep our egos in check, to see the bigger picture, to find positive solutions.
While Balak represents an extreme, the balance between our own needs and those of others is always a challenge. We should look after ourselves, of course, but at what cost to others? Like a stone cast in to the water, every action has a ripple effect. The harsh word, overlooking someone else's distress, the small adjustments at the other's expense to enhance our status or our earnings, the things we say or do in a moment of greed, anger or temptation and then pretend didn't take place. Our body remembers the dozen cookies eaten in a weak moment; so too our souls reflect the impact of a life of compromise, a life of not reaching for the potential we could have achieved.
It is easy to blame G-d for bad weather, but what about humanity's responsibility to ensure that homes are built for safety, that growth doesn't expand lawlessly and without limits, that our conduits for the necessities of life – food, water, shelter, air conditioning and Internet – are not pushed to the brink?
G-d protects the Jewish people from Balak and Bilaam. The words that come from Bilaam, much to his chagrin, are magnificent praises. My hope and prayer is that G-d continues to protect us from the greed, the opportunism and the shortcomings of others and of ourselves.