The second of this week's Torah portions is Balak. Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this parsha back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
"Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness."
Earlier in the parsha (parashat Balak), we learned that Balak was agitated to see the Israelites -- victors in war against the Bashanites -- encamped beside him. They were so numerous, Torah tells us, that they hid the earth from view. (I imagine a valley, sage and scrub, blanketed with people and goats and tents.) So he hired Balaam, talented with curses, to curse these new and warlike neighbors so that they might go away.
Curses one and two have failed, and now Balaam turns his face to the wilderness. He turns his back on Balak and regards the desert, the empty place where God is easy to find. Often in Torah, revelation is found not among the teeming throngs of civilization but b'midbar, in the wild place of the desert, and this is where Balaam looks for guidance.
"As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme, he said:
Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of him who hears God's speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!"
When Balaam gazes into the wilderness, his eye settles on the one thing that doesn't belong, the encamped community only recently alighted in this valley. It is when he looks upon the children of Israel that the spirit of God comes upon him. The human connection forged in regarding this spirited band of newcomers causes the prophetic spirit to arise in him.
He asserts first who he is, and then that his senses are unified in perceiving God. He proclaims his position vis-a-vis the Eternal -- prostrate, befitting the moment of encounter -- but assures us that his eyes are unveiled.
Mystics of many traditions use the metaphor of veils -- and the lack thereof -- in talking about encountering God. "The paradox of the veil is simply that things are not God, but God is present in the things," writes William Chittick. God cannot be seen with the eyes or understood with the mind, but God can be seen "by the unveiled heart." Balaam's heart may have been closed to God at the beginning of this story, but after his encounter with the angel on the road -- after God opened his eyes -- Balaam is a different man. He has learned Who is beyond the veil of ordinary existence. Facing into the desert, Balaam is again awakened into the deep reality of what the unveiled heart can perceive.
With eyes unveiled, Balaam sees a new reality. Instead of seeing a military threat, a foreign people to be feared -- as Balak had seen -- Balaam looks into the hills and sees a people who travel with the Holy Blessed One in their midst. He sees with mochin d'gadlut, his "big mind" or expanded consciousness, instead of mochin d'katnut, constricted consciousness. And in that moment of seeing, all he can do is offer praise.
"How fair are thy tents, O Jacob / Thy dwellings, O Israel," he says. In this synechdoche, the patriarch symbolizes the whole. Jacob is the earthly, embodied side of the patriarch, the aspect that inhabits physical spaces. Israel is the other side of the coin, the part of the patriarch which wrestled with the angel of God and came away blessed. Where Jacob has tents, Israel has dwellings -- in Hebrew, Israel has mishkanot, like the holy dwelling-place of the indwelling Shekhinah.
Each of us is both Jacob and Israel; we have Jacob-ness and Israel-ness in ourselves. And each of us can make the leap from inhabiting a tent to inhabiting a dwelling-place. When we wrestle and dance and dream with Torah, we transform ourselves from worldly Jacob to engaged Israel, and we embody Balaam's blessing.
Balaam compares the Israelites to palm-groves, to gardens beside a river; to aloes and cedars, branches dripping with water and roots drinking abundant moisture. (Clearly this is the sacred text of a desert people -- these words wouldn't be half so remarkable in a rainforest.) Of course, some of Balaam's imagery might be problematic for us today -- as when he foretells how the Israelites will devour enemy nations and crush their bones! Maybe today we aspire to a gentler mode of intercultural interaction.
In the end, Balaam strengthens both blessing and curse. "Blessed are they who bless you, / Accursed are they who curse you!" he cries. I can't help seeing a hint of the doctrine of karma in his words. When we offer blessings for the people around us, we invite blessing to flow forth from the Source of All Blessing; when we offer curses, we turn away from that shefa, that divine flow, choosing spiritual drought.
As we study parashat Balak this week, may we be blessed with the ability to choose blessing for all. May our eyes be opened, and may we understand deeply and fully how the stance we take toward our neighbors creates the reality of how we interact.