In this week's parashah / Torah portion, the book of Bamidbar/Numbers takes an uncharacteristic diversion into the whimsical: we meet Mr. Ed's precursor, Bala'am's female donkey. Like Mr. Ed, Bala'am's verbose steed was able to see and understand her surroundings more perceptively than her human "master." Unlike Mr. Ed, Bala'am's donkey was beaten for her efforts:
The Moabite king, Balak, seeking an advantage as his people pursue a military conflict with the Israelites, instructs the seer Bala'am to "curse Israel." The seer replies that he can only bless what God blesses and only curse what God curses. Balak persists, and after consulting with God, Bala'am mounts his donkey and sets off. Three times, God places and angel in their path. Three times the donkey stops and Bala'am beats her. Until finally, God grants the beast the gift of speech: “What have I done to you that you hit me three times?” Balaam answers, “Because you act against me. If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you.” The donkey then says, “Am I not your faithful donkey whom you always ride? Have I ever done this to you before?” At which point God causes Bala'am to see the angel in the path.
The narrative continues: "Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, 'I have sinned. I did not realize you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back'" (Numbers 22:34)."
My colleague, Rabbi Neal Loevinger, cites a Hasidic teaching which asks a potent question: "A Hasidic commentator points out that if Balaam really didn't know about the angel, how could he have "sinned" in trying to move along?"
We often joke about the selective hearing of spouses, or teenage children, or elderly parents, or even our dogs . . . but there is a parallel phenomenon of selecting seeing which is just as widespread. The image that is screened onto the retina and is decoded by the brain is literally inside our head. Seeing is not something we do from a distance, what we see is not external to us . . . so sometimes we physically shield our eyes and sometimes we figuratively shield our eyes from that which we do not want to let in to our heads.
So many people and organizations and co-workers and media sources and loved ones and advertisers and acquaintances and complete strangers are trying to get us to see stuff. It's overwhelming and it is no wonder that out of self-defense we decide to selectively see.
Sometimes are selective seeing is an exercise in good judgment: there are images "out there" that can be soul-destroying. But once in a while, we need to review the barriers to seeing that we have put in place and examine our motives for setting them up:
Am I not "seeing" my mother's loneliness because it is easier than addressing it?
Am I not "seeing" the extent of the hunger in my community because it is easier than accepting responsibility for it?
Am I not "seeing" the invitations from my rabbi to learn, to pray, to engage in my congregation because it is easier than changing my priorities?
Once Bala'am owned up to his selective seeing the path before him was clear once more. He could go forward to bless and thereby be blessed himself.
It's ironic that the things we selectively do not see are often the things that are blocking the way to clarity and inner peace in our lives. Bala'am's sin was not against God as much as it was sabatoge against his own soul . . .
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.