There is a lot on TV these days, but—and you’ll forgive me if I sound like a bit of a snob—there is not a lot to watch. Beth, our girls, and I tend to favor singing and dance competitions. But, perhaps because of the constant, external din of noise and stress, I am more drawn to what I’ll call redemption tales, stories in which the characters confront life’s stumbling blocks and, after much effort, eventually grow beyond them, or they learn to adapt and compensate. Dear friends of ours recently recommended The Kominsky Method, the story of Sandy Kominsky, an acting coach who, despite his own emotional deficiencies, teaches a method focusing on an actor’s ability to listen for the most elemental truths of the human condition and to transmit them through their craft.
There is a similar theme in this week’s Torah portion, which tells of Balak, the Moabite king who, when looking upon the encampment of the People of Israel, trembles knowing of their victory over the Amorites. Balak gazes upon the Israelites, sees a threat, and despairs. He calls upon Balaam, a non-Israelite diviner, to curse Israel. Balaam reflects on Balak’s request, listens for guidance, and despite hearing God’s instruction to refuse Balak, Balaam freezes.
I imagine it like a weekly TV drama. Baalam refuses Balak. Balak make more demands. Balaam caves and goes, by donkey, to look down upon Israel. Impeded by an angel, the donkey stops in his path. Balaam, blind to the angel, beats the donkey for refusing to move forward. The donkey asks Balaam, Why are you beating me? In scene after scene, we learn about impediment after impediment; the situation grows ever more complex and tense. Despite all his efforts to not heed God’s words, despite all the acquiescing, Balaam finally speaks: “How good are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel.” Though he was ordered to curse Israel, Balaam’s words are even now the words of blessing spoken upon entering our sanctuaries.
These redemptive tales—Sandy Kominsky’s and Balaam’s—are really stories about regaining vision; they are about seeing clearly what was, previously, made murky by external din, by the noise and stress of life. They are about opening both one’s eyes and one’s heart. Balaam’s redemption comes after looking at Israel with enlightened eyes, eyes that see Israel dwelling at peace. This Shabbat, may we open our eyes to the peace and humanity before us.