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Open Your Eyes (More Than Once)

Parashat Balak - June 26, 2021

The respected Rabbi Yochanan would give his lectures perched upon seven cushions, so that he could be easily seen by all of his students. One day, Rav Kahana was visiting the yeshiva, and he offered a series of challenges to Rabbi Yochanan that the great Rabbi could not answer. With every unanswered challenge, Rabbi Yochanan took one cushion out from under him, until he sat on the floor. Rabbi Yochanan was so old that his eyelids drooped over his eyes, and he asked his students to open his eyes for him so that he could clearly see his challenger. They brushed his eyes open with a silver brush, but once Rabbi Yochanan could see, he did not like what he saw. Rav Kahana was smirking at him, and Rabbi Yochanan was so offended that Rav Kahana was struck down by heaven. The next day, Rabbi Yochanan mentioned Rav Kahana’s smirk to his students, and they explained that this was just the way Rav Kahana’s face always sat. Filled with remorse, Rav Yochanan proceeded to Rav Kahana’s burial cave, asked for mercy, achieved Rav Kahana’s revival from the dead, and then learned everything he could from the master he knew was greater than himself.

“Open your eyes!” “Seeing is believing.” “Gaze inwards.” We have this idea of seeing as the be all and end all of knowledge. Seeing is understanding, being fully present, knowing more. I don’t know about you, but when I heard our Talmudic story for the first time, I was shocked. The seemingly humble Rabbi Yochanan, who physically lowers himself to show his deficiency in knowledge, is drastically wrong the moment he sees for the first time. Once he sees, Rabbi Yochanan is put off entirely and only achieves greater wisdom when he digs deeper into his colleague’s story.

I am reminded of Balaam’s story in our Torah portion today. King Balak of Moab asks Balaam, a local prophet, to curse the Israelites. They are getting to be much too big and much too powerful. Balaam knows that he cannot curse or bless anyone without talking to God first, and God is not happy about King Balak’s request. However, Balaam goes anyway, and God and a talking donkey join together to help him to literally open up his eyes and see an angel of God he could not see before. There’s a glorious moment of new knowledge with Balaam’s sight, and yet, such initial sight is not the apex of the story. Balaam goes to meet the King, who yet again, asks Balaam to curse Israel for him. However, they’re standing in a spot in which Balaam can see a bit of the people Israel, and he can only bless them in beautiful poetry. King Balak changes their position so that Balaam can only see another small bit of the people Israel, and with this additional sight, Balaam can only bless further. They change position once more, and Balaam looks up to see all of the people of Israel stretched out before him. It is only then that “the spirit of God came upon him.” Balaam has now seen the entire picture, a society that he knows is blessed by God. It boggles my mind that this great praise of Israel comes between sections of the Torah in which the people Israel act with a whole lot of disgrace, but Balaam shows us the advantage of his deep seeing. Those moments of nastiness that we hear about in our text, the flaws that our text points out to us so that we can truly focus on being better, are only part of the big picture. The Israelites are humans who have gone through a harrowing, magnificent journey to arrive where they are currently, at the edge of their land. As Balaam sees everything, from the threats that King Balak recognizes in the people Israel, to the human bickering that happens in such a large community, to the beauty that arises when he allows God to breathe into him, Balaam can now only bless.

In both the cases of Balaam and Rabbi Yochanan, seeing once is pivotal but is not enough. The more they see, the more they know how small they really are. And yet, somehow, that gaining of humility gives them new power to achieve. As soon as Rabbi Yochanan sees Rav Kahana’s wisdom, he is able to raise the dead, and he gains access to Rav Kahana’s incredible store of knowledge. As soon as Balaam sees the entire people Israel, he is able to gain not only the voice of God in prophecy, but more importantly, God’s all-encompassing spirit. After his final, spectacular blessing of Israel, Balaam is able to share a clear picture of the future of his local nations.

Seeing might be believing, but from these two characters, we learn that we must open our eyes even wider, again and again, to get the big picture. When we meet a person or a people that frustrate us to no end, we have to quite literally look further. We must meet the other face-to-face and learn their small quirks, what makes them laugh, their concerns, and their stories. It may be a frustrating process, but it is crucial that we try to figure out what is behind that inappropriate comment, stony silence, or differing opinion. We might be hit with the humility of knowing that our first vision was wrong, but with that, we might also be hit with a new ability to help. 

When we see pictures on the news of a people in pain, and we get that urge to turn the screen off or scroll down the page, what would happen if we stay just a little bit longer? It is so much easier to ignore reality by not seeing, but what if we challenge ourselves to see even more - to stay on those pictures of children separated from families, those headlines that boast of even more inequality and death, even those terrifying pictures that your one militant vegan friend posts of farm animals? 

Seeing can be painful, as it reminds us of how much we don’t know and can’t possibly fix alone - Balaam literally falls on his face the first time he sees in our story. But as the commentator Seforno writes about our Torah portion, we cannot truly bless or curse without seeing in all of the depths of what sight entails. Stay on that picture, click further, dive deeper into conversation. Fall in love or burn in anger - either way, endeavor so that you can see enough to know whether you should bless or curse. See enough to gain the humility to realize that you possess emotions and values that you never knew before, to know further that you are not the only one who matters. And then, see enough to change your perspective from the last time you saw.

Throughout the story of Balak and Balaam, we are told quite explicitly that magic has no place in the people Israel. Here and throughout Jewish text and practice, we are assured that the things we see cannot be fixed or made even greater through closing our eyes and reciting an incantation. We see so that we can learn; we learn so that we can act. We act - we practice mitzvot - so that we can learn how to act even better in the world around us. Every morning, we are encouraged to bless God, poqeakh ivrim, who gives sight to the blind. I’d like to believe that we must say this blessing each and every morning because it is not possible to have seen enough of anything to truly know. Each day, we ask God for more and more sight, to lend us the humility that leads to true power. Each day, we thank God for the sights we have already seen, the beauty that has shaped and is constantly shaping our passions and personalities.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782