One of the glaring questions of Parshat Balak is this: Why do we read it at all? The story of Balak and Bilaam is unique in the Torah, in that the main characters–the Israelites–are completely passive, they are off-stage. Up until now, and from here on out, the story of the Torah is one in which the Israelites have destiny in their hands. Indeed, this has been the major thrust of the Book of Numbers, which reached its high point during the story of the spies: “We can take the land,” exhorts Caleb. A lack of faith leads the people to doubt their own abilities. But in this, as in all the other tests in the wilderness, the Israelites are free to make their choices. They are the center of attention.

Not so in parshat Balak. “And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” From this opening moment of the parasha, the Israelites are somewhere in the background. Yet they are the main subjects of the story. It provokes an awkward sense of dislocation.

So why does the Torah include it?

I spent the earlier part of this week chairing a conference in New York on teaching Torah to emerging adults. We spent a lot of time talking about the transition to adulthood, and what happens during what the columnist David Brooks has called “the Odyssey years,” the years of exploration and testing commitments and identities. One of the markers of that transition is a remarkable double-move of recognition. As children, we gradually come to recognize that there are other people in the world, and we learn to pick up on their social cues, their needs and desires, in order to live together in harmony. We also come to realize that we have our own identities, separate from others. But what happens in adulthood–successful adulthood, anyway–is that a person comes to recognize how he or she is perceived by others. That is, we come to see ourselves as others see us. That doesn’t mean that we are what others see us as, but it means we can enter into their imagination and look back upon ourselves.

It has always struck me that this is the purpose of the story of Balak and Bilaam. For Bilaam sees in the Israelites what they themselves seem incapable of seeing: “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” (Num. 24:5) Bilaam sees–in the deepest prophetic meaning of the term–the goodness of the Israelites. He sees their potential. He sees what they could become. And yet, the Israelites themselves seem incapable of seeing themselves that way. Immediately upon the conclusion of the story of Bilaam, “the people began to lust after the daughters of Moab.” (Num. 25:1) The term here is liznot, the same word used during the sin of the spies, the same action that our wearing of tzitzit are supposed to guard against. The tzitzit serve the same purpose as Bilaam’s words that we read this week: to remind us of a vision of ourselves, of what we could be and what we are called to be.

The story of Bilaam is therefore a reminder of the necessity of hearing voices outside ourselves who can stand beyond our own myopia and remind us of who we can be, if only we will remember.

Shabbat shalom.

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