Leadership theorists Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have introduced the phrase “looking from the balcony” into a lot of conversations among people I work with. (They have been the go-to leadership thinkers for the Wexner Foundation for many years.) When we step on the balcony and look at our situation, we get a different perspective. We stop the tape and examine what’s going on with a wider view.
One of the marvelous things about Parshat Balak is the way it transports us as readers outside the story of the children of Israel and onto the balcony. “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,” begins the parasha (Num. 22:2). Immediately we are struck by the fact that it is not Moses or God speaking, it is not an event in the life of the people. The whole story is literally told from the balcony—from the high places overlooking the Israelite encampment. And what Balaam sees is ultimately a beautiful thing: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).
Yet aside from the recent military victories they have been achieving in the preceding chapters, the narrative of the people has not been exemplary. Immediately after the story of Balak and Balaam, the narrative returns to yet another example of the people sinning, with the story of Zimri, Kozbi, and Pinchas. The parasha seems designed to highlight the gap between the way Balaam sees the people and the way the people see themselves. Balaam sees a people capable of greatness, a blessed people with a noble calling based on God’s taking them out of Egypt. But the people themselves are blind to this, and repeatedly see only what is right in front of them: a lack of food or water, the sexual temptations of Midian. In the case of the spies, they saw themselves as grasshoppers about to take on giants. The gap between what Balaam sees and what the people see is striking.
According to the plain text, Balaam is not the nefarious character that later Rabbinic interpretation will make him out to be. Balaam’s repeated insistence that he can only do the word of God seems intended to remind later readers, the descendents of the Israelites, that they too must seek to discern and live God’s word. The haftarah for Parshat Balak makes this point, drawing a parallel between the words of Balaam’s donkey and the words of God to the Jewish people: “My people, what wrong have I done you?” (Micah 6:3) parallels the donkey’s plaintive cry, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam cannot see, just as the Israelites cannot see.
On Sunday we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, ushering in a period of intensifying mourning that concludes with Tisha b’Av in three weeks. This is meant to be a period of introspection, of standing on the balcony and looking at ourselves as individuals and as a people, seeing that which is right in front of us from a larger perspective. As the concluding lines of the haftarah remind us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you; To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Such words are not meant to exempt us from performing mitzvot; rather they are meant to help us remember that the details of our lives answers to larger questions. Balaam, along with Micah, helps us remember what those larger questions are.