“Whoever has… an ayin tova, a good eye… is a student of Avraham; whoever has an ayin ra’ah, a bad eye… is a student of Balaam,” the Rabbis tell us in Pirkei Avot (5:22). Avraham sees well, whereas Balaam sees poorly. How so?
On the face of it, the stories of Avraham and Balaam are parallel. Both Avraham and Balaam are called to leave their land and to go westward, to or near the land of Canaan. But while Avraham is called by God to go, lekh likha, Balaam is told by God to stay, lo teilekh. The first lesson, then, is that it is not the going that is important. It is the listening to God. If God says go, you go. And if God says stay, you stay.
So they are both commanded by God. And Balaam, at least in principle, is willing to obey God. But whereas Avraham follows God’s command, Balaam resists it. Why? The difference lies not in how they are prepared to act, but how they are prepared to see.
God does not just command Avraham to go to Canaan. God commands him to go to the land asher ar’ekha, that I will show you. To fulfill that command, it is not enough to obey. One must also learn to see. To find the chosen land, Avraham has to be able to see what God is showing him. He has to learn to see. This is why the climax of Avraham’s trials, the akeida, which also begins with a lekh likha, is all about seeing properly: seeing the place from a distance, telling Yitzchak that God will see the sheep; seeing the angel; seeing the ram; even naming the place ‘the mount where God is seen.” Avraham’s career begins with seeing and ends with seeing, seeing what God is showing him; seeing as God would see.
Balaam is a different story. Balaam is prepared to do “as God speaks to me” (Bamidbar 22:8), that is, to listen to God. There is a huge difference between obeying and agreeing. Balaam continues to see things differently than God. If he obeys, he will do so with reluctance and resistance. “God refuses to let me go with you” (22:13), he says. I still want to go, but God is holding me back.
God tries to teach Balaam otherwise. God tells Balaam not to go with the messengers, not to curse the people, for “they are blessed.” God is letting him know what the true, deeper reality is. But, of course, Balaam continues to see things his way. As Rashi comments (32:22): “He saw that it was evil in God’s eyes, and yet he desired to go.” He did not care how God saw the matter. It was his perspective that mattered.
God, however, isn’t done with the education of Balaam. Hence the bizarre story of the speaking donkey. The point of the story is clear: the donkey is able to see what Balaam cannot. Three times we hear, va’teireh ha’aton, “and the donkey saw.” It is remarkable that the verse does not signal that there is anything miraculous about the donkey seeing the angel, it is only when the donkey speaks that we read: “And God opened the mouth of the donkey” (22:28). Animals, as we know, can sometimes smell, hear and see things in the environment that we as humans cannot. Partly this is because of the way their senses have developed to adapt to their environment. But partly it is also because they experience the world for what it is. They do not bring the type of subjective lens that we as humans do to our experiences, filtering, shaping, and seeing things in ways that are consistent with our worldview. The simple, unfiltered seeing of the donkey is like the simple seeing of children, free from the rationalizations and self-deceptions of adults. It is a seeing that allows them to see what we so often cannot.
Balaam’s arrogance, self-importance, and desire for fame and enrichment blind him to seeing the obvious facts. And now, just as God had opened the mouth of the donkey, God miraculously opens the eyes of Balaam, so that he can see the angel, see the truth. But does Balaam learn? Hardly. “Now, if it is evil in Your eyes, I will return back,” (32:34) he responds. It is still not evil in my eyes. I understand that it may be evil in Your eyes, and if you tell me not to go, I am prepared to listen. You can get me to obey, but I refuse to see things Your way.
At this stage, God allows for a compromise. If Balaam can’t be taught to see right, God can at least get him to say the right thing, force-feeding him the lines, putting the very words in his mouth. Perhaps there is a lesson here, that even when we disagree with someone, it can pay to say the words that they want to hear. “Yes, dear,” can often be the most important two words in a marriage. Insincerity is never good, but words do have a power of their own. If we choose to say the desired words, even if we do not fully believe them, then not only can they be helpful to the one hearing them, but they can also help shape our own perception, help change the way we see.
This is what happens with Balaam. When he begins working with Balaak, he of course continues to see things his way, even as God is working against this. Balak helps with this, making sure that Balaam only sees the “edge of the people” (22:41, and later 23:13), not to appreciate their totality, and their blessedness. To pick on particular aspects that one can see with a jaundiced eye.
This is a key strategy to reinforcing the way we see the world: choosing to see selectively. Consider how rare it is that we try to see the true complexity and scope of a matter, to realize that things aren’t so black and white, to see all the nuances. In fact, it was initially thought that with all the information easily available on the Internet, people would develop more informed and nuanced views about matters. What actually happened, and continues to happen, however, is that people choose to see only the “edge of the people,” and seek out the information that reinforces their already established position. It is so much easier to see selectively, to see just what we want to see.
That was the attempt. But the words that Balaam utters begin to have their effect. In his first two poetic prophecies, we hear him declaiming – with the words fed to him by God – how the people are truly to be seen: “For I see them from the tops of mountains, and from the hills I behold them” (23:9), “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has he seen perverseness in Israel” (23:21). It seems that these words start to seep in to his own consciousness, so that finally, by the third prophecy, he begins to actually believe them. It is now, at this third and final stage, that Balaam truly begins to see:
And Balaam saw that it was good in the eyes of God to bless Israel… (24:1)
This is the turning point. Before it was “bad in God’s eyes,” to curse, but he refused to see and resisted. Now it is “good in God’s eyes,” to bless; he sees this and he embraces it. It is these very words vayar… ki tov, “and he saw… that it was good,” that echo the very first act of seeing in the Torah: va’yar E-lohim ki tov, “And God saw that it was good.” This is an act of divine seeing. Balaam is now seeing as God sees.
He can now, finally, see. He can now that he lift up his own eyes and see the people as they truly are (24:2). It is now that he declares that he can see “the vision of God” and see with “eyes open.” (24:3) – self-descriptions that have been absent until now. And it is now, and only now, that he is filled with the “spirit of God.” It is not just words that he is parroting back. He is elevated and inspired by what he sees, and he speaks from his heart.
With this Balaam’s education is complete. Sadly, however, the change is short-lived, as the remainder of the parasha bears out. For to learn how to see properly is not something that can be done in an instant. Even when our eyes are open, we often resist and choose to remain blind. It is a life-long struggle to be the students of Avraham, to learn to see the “land that God will show you.” The keys are given to us in this parasha: see fully, not partially; and say the right words, even if you do not yet believe them. Ultimately, you will be able to see rightly, to see with a “good eye,” to see as God would have you see.