When we look at one another (or anything for that matter), what is it we are seeing? How much of our vision comes from the person in front of us and how much of it comes from what our perceptions add? Even more so, how much do our perceptions then affect our ability to fully see all of the living details of the person we are encountering? And finally, and perhaps of greatest consequence, how aware are we of this process in our own experience?
It is generally acknowledged that often times we lose track of where the real person in front of ends and our perception begins. What this parasha, parshat Balak, allows us to explore is what the implications of that are, and how we can approach our encounters with others with greater wisdom and ultimately, compassion.
Our parasha tells of Bil’am, a sort of “prophet for hire” figure who is approached by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Israelites because of Balak’s fear that they would somehow take up his land and resources (an area about perception worthy of exploration itself, but for another time). After a famous incident with a talking donkey and an angel, as well as a few failed attempts at making the curse in which Bil’am instead blesses the Israelites, he makes his most notable proclamation. It is one that contains a phrase now a standard part of Jewish liturgy, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” Just before this phrase, he introduces his words with a striking and curious preface, “this is the word of Bil’am, son of Beor, word of the man whose eye is true.”
Commentators have sought to understand what Bil’am meant when he referred to himself as a “man whose eye is true”. Among them is Rabbenu Yeshaya, a great Italian sage of the 12th and 13th centuries. He argues that “eye” is singular here because “once it entered Bil’am’s mind to curse the Israelites, one of his eyes was blinded” (quoted in the Hida’s Pnei David on this verse). We can infer that once he was willing to bless them, he saw again with both eyes.
Rabbenu Yeshaya’s comment offers us a penetrating realization. Once a person has decided that they are willing to curse another, their ability to see them in their fullness is seriously impaired. In order for one to be in a frame of mind in which they would wish significant harm to another, they must refuse to see certain aspects of that other’s humanity, instead allowing an austere perception to take its place. On the other hand, to wish someone blessing brings with it the capacity to acknowledge someone in their fullness; to see all aspects of their humanity.
Of course, we encounter many people in our lives. Some of them we would be quite ready to bless, others, definitely not. In these latter cases, we must remind ourselves of an essential principle that emerges from this story. We may rightfully condemn conduct, level legitimate criticism, prevent injury, and inspire change, but to curse, that is a different matter altogether. To curse would mean our succumbing to a loss of vision, a loss of the ability to perceive another’s humanity. It would mean allowing a most unkind perception to dominate over the actual person facing us. Our obligation is keep our vision intact and to not lose sight of the full picture of the person we encounter. In the words of the great educator, Nell Noddings, our obligation is “to spot a better self and encourage its development. We can do this only if we know the other well enough to see what he or she is trying to become…we do not set up a single ideal or set of expectations for everyone to meet, but we identify something admirable, or at least acceptable, struggling to emerge in each person we encounter” (from The Challenge to Care). And that, as Bil’am’s story reminds us, is something that allows us to truly see, with eyes open.