What do Balaam and the Eye of Sauron have in common?
The theme of Balak, this week’s Torah Portion, is the Eye – a motif introduced by the very first word of this sedra:
וַיַּ֥רְא בָּלָ֖ק בֶּן־צִפּ֑וֹר אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לָֽאֱמֹרִֽי
“And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” (Num. 22:2)
When Balak, King of the Moabites, sends messengers to the Prophet-Seer Balaam, his dispatch clarifies a nuance of our theme. This story is not merely about the Eye it is about the open Eye:
הוַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח מַלְאָכִ֜ים אֶל־בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֗וֹר פְּת֠וֹרָה אֲשֶׁ֧ר עַל־הַנָּהָ֛ר אֶ֥רֶץ בְּנֵֽי־עַמּ֖וֹ לִקְרֹא־ל֑וֹ לֵאמֹ֗ר הִ֠נֵּ֠ה עַ֣ם יָצָ֤א מִמִּצְרַ֨יִם֙ הִנֵּ֤ה כִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְה֥וּא ישֵׁ֖ב מִמֻּלִֽי
“A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the “eye” of the land, and they are stationed opposite me.” (Num. 22:5)
This language is peculiar and revealing.
What is interesting about the unusual metaphor used here is twofold:
- Balak describes the population of Israel as threatening because they have ‘covered’ or ‘concealed’ the “eye of the land”, language which makes little sense until we are introduced to Balaam.
- In describing Israel as those who have “come out of Egypt”, Balak’s directive forges a linguistic link between himself (the King of Moav) and Pharaoh (the King of Egypt).Both Pharaoh and Balak felt threatened by the children of Israel and took steps to decimate them. Both opted to hire others to harm Israel, Pharaoh by enslaving the nation and ordering Egyptians to kill their firstborn sons, and Balak by hiring a soothsayer to curse the people and then ordering Moabite women to entice their sons.
Yet Pharaoh does not mention the “eye” of the land, as Balak does. What can he mean?
The Ass and the Angel
If Balak, King of Moav, approached Balaam for help, then he was clearly a Seer with a strong reputation who was believed to wield the power to bless and curse others. After Balaam is asked to curse Israel by Balak’s men, the text relates the Seer’s conversation with G!d concerning this appointment:
One would think such a great Seer and Prophet would also be a great man, who observes a direct commandment from G!d when he receives it. But we are surprised by his next decision: The following morning after this divine encounter, Balaam wakes up, saddles his donkey, and leaves with Balak’s men to curse Israel.
G!d’s anger is kindled and an avenging angel is sent down to block his path. If you had to take a guess, which is more likely to see the angel: The Prophet or the Ass?
If you guessed the Prophet, you would be wrong.
Balaam is blind to the presence of the angel, but his donkey is not. Three times, says the Torah, the donkey carrying Balaam saw the angel of HaShem:
‘וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת-מַלְאַךְ ה
In fact, just as Moshe struck the rock twice in anger in last week’s portion, Balaam strikes his donkey thrice in this week’s portion. In both cases, G!d is extremely displeased.
After G!d reproves Balaam by speaking a rebuke through the mouth of his noble steed, G!d drives the lesson home by “opening the eyes of Balaam”:
|לא וַיְגַל ה’, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ ה’ נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו.||31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. (Num. 22:31)|
Balaam’s donkey could see an angel of HaShem (a manifestation of divine anger) while he himself could not. Balaam now owed his life to his animal, who was proven to be more of a Prophet than he was.
Just the night before, Balaam was told directly by G!d not to go with Balak’s men. He went anyway. Here was the second warning.
Yet did Balaam turn around? I’ll give you one guess.
The Eye of the Ayin
Before we continue exploring this week’s narrative, let’s take a moment to look at the 16th letter of the Aleph-Bet: The Ayin.
The original form of the letter Ayin was the image of an open human eye. This later became the letter we are all familiar with, a two pronged shape with a slanted base. And yet the name of the letter, Ayin, remains.
Ayin means Eye in Hebrew.
The other meanings of this letter include:
- To watch
- To know (as in seeing and experiencing)
Like the eye itself, the Hebrew letter Ayin is silent. Instead of being verbal, it is watchful.
Which character in our Torah portion has an Eye at the heart of his name? None other than Balaam בִּלְעָם.
The One with the Open Eye?
After the donkey incident, Balaam decides to continue traveling with Balak, promising, however, to only speak the words that G!d places in his mouth.
When Balak and Balaam arrive at the mountaintop overlooking the people of Israel, the story enters a kind of narrative loop where Balak prepares sacrifices, Balaam prophesizes good tidings (not curses), Balak is infuriated, and demands that Balaam tries again.
Each time, it seems, they move closer to within view of the nation of Israel. And each time, Balaam blesses the people instead of cursing them.
When the King of Moav demands an explanation, Balaam apologizes by saying:
וּדְבַר מַה-יַּרְאֵנִי וְהִגַּדְתִּי לָךְ
“…and whatsoever He [G!d] shows me I will tell thee.” (Num. 23:3)
The word for “show” is the same as the word for “see” – from the root ר.א.ה (to see, perceive, show, indicate, demonstrate).
And each time Balaam prophesizes, he includes a reference to sight. For example:
|כִּי-מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.||9 For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23:9)|
Before each blessing, Bilaam arranges himself in the line of sight of the people of Israel– the text is explicit about this. It’s almost as if he required direct eye contact with the entity he wanted to curse.
Here comes the climax of the narrative, where the theme of the open Eye comes to fruition:
Balaam refers to himself as “The One with the Open Eye”, as if he were as all-seeing as G!d Himself.
While it is true that some of his prophecies came to pass, and while today, the nation he sought to curse speak his words, “How goodly are thy tents, O Yaacov!” as a threshold blessing whenever they enter a synagogue, Balaam was not as all-powerful as he perceived himself to be.
The events of the sedra (a donkey seeing what he could not) certainly do not bear his lofty title out.
Balaam was gifted with power, but only of a certain sort. He only had one powerful eye (The One with the Open Eye, not ‘Eyes’), and it was not a good eye.
It was Balaam’s Evil Eye, his Ayin HaRah, that was the source of his power. His ‘evil’ eye was open, meaning that cursing others was Balaam’s specialty.
By contrast, Balaam’s divine eye, his good eye, was clouded where G!d’s holy nation of Israel were concerned, just as the ‘eye’ of the land of Moav was covered (in Balak’s view) when Israel stepped foot upon it.
The curse of the Evil Eye is an ancient concept, one that is shared by all cultures that were born in the fertile crescent of the Near East. Even today, the Ayin HaRah, a curse cast by the withering stare of jealousy, cruel intentions, and ill wishes, is perceived to be such a threat that the amulet trade is quite healthy both in Israel and abroad.
The Evil Eye, according to superstition, which was cast by an enemy, can be responsible for bad luck, poor health, reversal of fortune, even death. (Bli Ayin Hara! Ptoo Ptoo Ptoo!)
Featuring the protective, divine color of blue (t’chelet), and the good, ever-open Eye of G!d, the Guardian of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps, these amulets are believed to defend families and individuals against the Ayin HaRah if they are hung in the home or carried on a keychain.
What, if any, power is there in our gaze? Need we take this whole story of Balaam and Balak and the Evil Eye seriously?
Eye / Eye
In Ethics of the Fathers (chapter 5) there is a perplexing piece of wisdom regarding the Good and Evil Eyes:
כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים אֲחֵרִים, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. עַיִן טוֹבָה, וְרוּחַ נְמוּכָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. עַיִן רָעָה, וְרוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. מַה בֵּין תַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ לְתַלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע.
“Whomever has the following three traits is among the students of Avraham, our father; and [whomever has] three different traits is among the students of Balaam, the wicked.
Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a modest soul; he is of the students of Abraham, our father. Those who have an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a greedy soul; he is of the students of Balaam, the wicked…”
(This ethic continues on to state the rewards for each school of thought in this world and the next, and I’ll tell you: the inheritance of the followers of Balaam is not good.)
But let’s focus on the Good Eye and the Evil Eye. While the followers of Avraham (i.e. the entire Jewish people) cultivate a Good Eye, the followers of Bilaam cultivate the opposite.
If the Evil Eye symbolizes jealousy, cruelty, and wishing bad tidings on others, then the Good Eye symbolizes courtesy, judging favorably, and rejoicing in the good fortune of others.
The letter Ayin can be viewed as a diagram of the two symbolic Eyes of the human being: Good and Evil.
Balaam chose to use his Evil Eye to curse those around him, at the word of Balak who, like Pharaoh, was threatened by the prosperity of a nation he did not know and wanted to curse. To Balak, the good fortune of another was a thorn in his own eye.
But we are students of Avraham, the man with the Good Eye. Known for his chessed, lovingkindess, whether he had little or much, Avraham was always willing to share with others. The prosperity of friend, family, stranger alike did not threaten him. Rather, he always sought ways to celebrate with, and find peace with, his neighbor. He saw the world through a positive lens.
Balaam’s downfall was that he could only see through his Evil Eye.
His tragedy was that though he was gifted with powers of speech, a connection to the divine, and a powerful gaze, Balaam chose to use his powers for evil. If we elect to see the Other through a clouded lens of jealousy, envy, paranoia, and bitterness, then that is the reality we create for ourselves and others.
And yet. If we elect to give others the benefit of the doubt, rejoice in each other’s good fortune, look with generosity on ourselves, our friends, and the stranger, then we will all flourish.
One of my brother’s favorite Yiddish words is the word kookvinkle, קוקווינקל, perspective. This is a compound word made from kook (look) and vinkle (corner). In this way, one’s perspective, according to Yiddish wisdom, is determined by your ‘Looking Corner’!
When you step into your corner, to gaze at the Other, what kind of kookvinkle will you cultivate?
When you open your Ayin, which Eye will you use?
To my newborn niece, as she opens her beautiful eyes for the first time, may she merit to see only goodness and blessings in this world. May her parents merit to see her grow to Torah, Mitzvot, Chuppah, and Ma’asim Tovim.
With thanks to Rabbi Jawary for teaching this Pirkei Avot and for modeling a Good Eye
Thank you Sarah-Leah for your thoughts and comments on this article
Benner, Jeff A. “Ayin: The Ancient Hebrew Alphabet”. https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/ancient-alphabet/ayin.htm