Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael: "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel."
In the midst of our book of wandering, a Moabite sovereign engages a seer from the Euphrates region in the hopes of cursing and thus defeating the Israelites. In the central irony of this fanciful tale that opens with the verb vayar: He saw, neither the king Balak nor the hireling Balaam are able to "see" the Israelites.
They position and reposition themselves in an attempt to measure the threat posed by the multitude that "hides the earth from view." The two travel from point to point without gaining the perspective they seek, for each time they look, they don't see the women or children. They see only men, and presume them to be warriors.
Only when the Holy One opens Balaam's eyes can he see more than a portion of the people he has been sent to curse. Balaam sees the tents that are the homes and the gathering places of the women, children and men who populate the community. He sees the old and the young, the teachers and the students, the shepherds and the farmers. He sees schools and workshops, and observes people speaking, studying and planning together.
Stunned by a newfound perspective on the Israelite community, Balaam describes the people in language that evokes Eden: "Like palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Eternal, like cedars beside the water; their boughs drip with moisture, their roots have abundant water."
World Divided in Two
Have the clouded eyes of the desert diviner cleared sufficiently that he can see the promise of a people who have the power to make the desert bloom?
For a moment, Balaam sees a community as it can be: individuals building a society of mutual dependence and trust, a community where each person is treated with dignity. But when he extends his description of this people to their relationship with others, the utopian vision fades, and the people become just like any other who seek domination over their foes.
Balaam concludes, "Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you." As in the beginning of this portion, the world is divided into two — those who seek to maintain power and those who attempt to usurp it, the victors and the vanquished, the blessed and the cursed.
The concluding story of this portion illustrates the tragedy of seeing the world dichotomized. 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. They forget the promise of redemption.
Blind like Balak and Balaam, they cannot see the richness of their community. They turn away from their wives and families. Objectifying Moabite women, they treat them as whores. And their amnesia lead them to death.
Who of us is able to see the world clearly? Who of us is able to see others as human beings like ourselves, hungry for peace and security, more interested in building connections than in destroying them? Who of us is able to see ourselves without the veils and misconceptions of those who alienate us from ourselves?
Balaam's vision is of a world in which we, the descendants of the biblical Israelites, exemplify the comfort all seek: goodness in our homes.The goodness, viability and continuing strength of our dwelling places depend on our ability to open our eyes, to see and take in the complex world in which we find ourselves, and then to find ways to join together with all human beings in the sacred task of service to humankind.
May we fulfill this vision by our clarity and deeds, so that all can proclaim: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael: "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel."
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the director of the URJ Pennsylvania Council/Philadelphia Federation.