The story of Parashat Balak is well known. Balak ben Zipor, a Moabite king, is afraid of what Israel might do to his people, since he already knows what Israel did to the Amorites. In an effort to stop Israel, he seeks the help of Bilam, a non-Jewish prophet, asking Bilam to leave his home, find Israel, and curse it. After seeking advice from God, at first Bilam refuses, but eventually relents to accompany Balak’s men on the journey, although not without first saying: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18)
On the journey, Bilam is not able to see the angel of God blocking his path, something that his donkey is able to see quite clearly. (Not a very good seer, is he?) God opens Bilam’s eyes and then Bilam is able to see what his donkey could see the entire time. Bilam ends up not cursing Israel at all, but instead blessing it three times. Each blessing is powerful on its own, but together, the three teach us a great deal about Israel’s understanding of the world.
The first blessing contains the verse: “As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Is this verse just describing the geographic reality of what Bilam saw, or is it teaching us that the only way Israel can survive, throughout the generations, is by dwelling apart from non-Jews, by not getting too close to those who are different from us?
Rashi, in 11th century France, understood Bilam’s first blessing to mean, “I look at their beginnings and at the first of their roots, and I see them established and strong as these rocks and as these hills through the matriarchs and patriarchs” (Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanhuma). In other words, Rashi understands that what Bilam meant with his words was that the continued survival of Judaism depended not on the geographic reality of Israel (whether or not dwelling apart from other nations), but rather on Israel continuing its unique traditions and laws. By having continuity with the past, and by never forgetting those who shaped the religion in previous generations, Israel can be as strong and permanent as the rock and the hills.
Bilam’s second blessing speaks movingly about the power of faith and how Israel will not be harmed because God is with them. It ends with these words: “Behold, a people that rises like a lion, leaps up like the king of beasts” (Numbers 23:24). Rashi says, “When they arise from their sleep in the morning, they make themselves strong like a lioness or lion to rush to do the mitzvot, such as putting on a tallit, reading the Shema and wearing tefillin.” In other words, Rashi is teaching us that the faith in God that Bilam spoke about is faith coupled with action, faith that expresses itself in how we live our lives each and every day.
Bilam’s third and final blessing contains the famous phrase “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). Rashi famously said about this verse that what Bilam saw when he looked down upon the tents of Israel was their physical placement, and specifically how the tent doors were positioned to guarantee that the individual members of families would have some privacy and therefore retain their dignity, despite the close quarters.
Rabbi Joseph Hertz (1872-1946, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and editor of the Hertz chumash) offers a different commentary. He said that the tents represented the beit midrash, the house of study, and the dwellings represented the beit tefilah, the house of prayer. According to Hertz, what Bilam saw when he looked down upon Israel was the future strength of Israel, the reason that Israel was (and still is!) able to survive so much destruction and calamity over so many centuries — dedication to study of Jewish texts and prayer.
Bilam was a stranger to Israel, and yet when he saw Israel, he was able to identify characteristics that defined it thousands of years ago, and that still help to define us today: a deep appreciation for tradition, an understanding that God is at the center of the Jewish experience and that we show our belief in God through action, and a belief that the three most important buildings in the Jewish world are the house of study, the house of prayer, and the home.
All of these blessings come to us from a non-Jewish prophet, from a person who was initially less cognizant of the world around him than his donkey was! Sometimes blessings are like that. We don’t see the blessings we have even though they are right in front of us until someone else points them out to us. May we all merit the day when we can see the blessings that are right in front of our eyes and continue to strengthen our faith, our actions, and our community, so that others may see those blessings as well.