We are pleased to share Kayla Sherwinter’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Balak from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom. The Sherwinters leave this week for a year in Israel. BJN wishes them safe travels!
by Kayla Sherwinter
Sometimes, how we see things makes all the difference. People think their eyes are like cameras. Everyone sees the same thing, but it just depends on your attitude.
The Torah says that there would never be a prophet in Israel that was a great as Moshe who is also known as Moses. Why does it have to say “In Israel?” Because there was a prophet as great among the other nations. That prophet was Balaam. He was hired by the king Balak, and he is described as a “wicked king” because when the jews were camping on his border, he called for the prophet Balaam to curse them. Even though Balak was a wicked king, my parsha is named after him.
The prophecy in Bamidbar 24:16 describes Balaam as נופל וגלוי עיניים (nofel u’galui aynaim), that “he is humble and that his eyes are unveiled.” Rabbi Chaim, the 18th Century leader of Lithuania’s Jewish community, compares Balaam and Moshe to an eagle and a bat. Balaam is like a bat, while on the other hand, Moshe is like an eagle. The eagle loves the sunlight, but it can’t see in the dark, but the bat thrives in darkness and is afraid of the light of day. When the sun rises, the eagle knows that it’s time to wake up and become active, while the bat knows it’s time to hide away in a dark cave. On the other hand, when it gets dark, the eagle knows it’s time to rest while the bat begins his activity.
A Rabbinic Midrash (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 34:10) compares and contrasts the prophets Moshe and Baalam and their knowledge of God, which is similar to the differences between an eagle and a bat. Whenever God wanted to give the world light and blessings Moshe’s prophetic abilities were awakened. So whenever God was filing the world with blessings, Moshe became active. Balaam was a prophet too and he also recognized this aspect of God, however his prophetic abilities were awakened during God’s time of anger and wrath. The Slonimer Rebbe, the 20th century Hassidic teacher, says that the difference between a curse and a blessing is being connected or disconnected to God; King Balak, through the prophet Balaam, wanted to curse the Israelites to separate them from God, while Moshe’s blessings connected them. So basically, though both Balaam and Moshe had great prophetic knowledge, Moshe was attracted to God’s light side while Balaam was attracted to the dark side. Just like how an eagle loves the day or the light and a bat likes the darkness.
Speaking of darkness, there’s an interesting verse in my parsha that I want to point out. In chapter 24 verse 3, there’s a phrase: נאם הגבר שתם העין (N’oom hagever shitoom hayin) which means: the word of a man who had either a closed eye or an open eye. This refers to Balaam, but how could both meanings be true? The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of the Hassidic movement, explains that a true prophet should be a holy person. So how could Balaam, who was evil, receive God’s word? The answer is that he had to be blind in one eye to be able to receive prophecy. So he could have either a closed eye or an open eye. The closed eye is physical because he’s actually blind in that eye, but the same blind eye, in a spiritual way is now open to prophecy.
I find it interesting that in the daily morning blessings or Birkot hashachar, one of the first blessings says pokeach ivrim, thanking God for opening the eyes of the blind. We are supposed to say it when we open our eyes in the morning so that we can see the light and not the darkness.
Looking at someone or something with an evil eye can affect how a person speaks. Therefore, Balaam’s intention was to curse the Jews because he looked at them with an evil eye. I’ve noticed that sometimes in school, if we are doing a project or activity that it’s always more fun if kids look at it with an open eye and an open mind. On the other hand, when people look at it with a closed mind or a negative attitude, then the project falls apart and doesn’t get done on time and it’s never any fun. Something I’ve noticed in school and in camp and a lot of other places, is that if you are in a group with people who are super different than you, and maybe you don’t work with them often, is that one person always tries to take full control of the project, and if the others don’t know what’s going on, the person who took charge doesn’t really let them do much. They discourage the people they’re working with instead of helping and encouraging them.
Getting back to animals, there is another animal that I want to highlight in this story. Balaam’s donkey. When Balak asked Balaam to curse the jews, Balaam eventually agreed, and God was angry at him for doing that, so he sent an angel to go stop Balaam. Let’s talk about Balaam’s donkey. The donkey is my personal favorite character in this story for a few reasons. First, she can talk. That’s awesome if you ask me, but how does Balaam respond to the donkey talking? He acts as if it’s perfectly normal. He doesn’t even question it. Balaam saddles the donkey and starts off down the road to go curse the Jews. The angel comes to block their path, and while the donkey can see the angel Balaam can’t. I want to tell this part of the story through the eyes of the donkey, so here it is!
Hi I’m a donkey. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: She’s not a donkey she looks the exact same as she did before. Yeah well just make believe that I’m a donkey. Okay, so I live at my master balaam’s house and yeah I guess it’s pretty nice there. I was living a good happy life when one day some people came. They went inside the house and so naturally I eavesdropped on their conversation because I didn’t have anything better to do. I heard them talking, and they asked my master Balaam if he would go with them to curse the Jews. Balaam had told them he would think about it. So I guess he started thinking about it, but soon enough those people came back. They offered him things like money, and power, and incentives like that and finally one day Balaam said yes he would go curse them. Well I thought that was pretty dumb because what did the Jews ever do to him? I guess he just wanted the money and the power, but anyway he saddled me up and started off down the road.
We were going down the road when suddenly I saw an angel of God blocking our path so I stopped and I veered off course and went down into the grass. Balaam seemed confused like he didn’t know why I had stopped and then, right out of the blue he hit me with a stick really hard! I mean it hurt! So the angel of God left and I kept walking. A little while later it appeared again so, I veered off course again and Balaam looking just as confused as he had the last time, hit me again! I mean I didn’t do anything bad to deserve getting hit by him. So finally the Angel of God disappeared once more and I kept walking down path. This time we were in a really narrow place where I had nowhere to back away so I just had to stop. Balaam looked at me with a kind of look that said: Why did you stop?! And then, he hit me a third time! Suddenly, God opened my mouth and now I could talk to Balaam. I said: What have I done to you that you should strike me three times? And Balaam just replied: You are stopping. I didn’t know why so I had to strike you.
Suddenly I realized Balaam couldn’t even see the angel of God, so God opened balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel standing there. Balaam looked so confused and he said to the angel: I’m so sorry I couldn’t see that you were there and I had no idea! so the angel told Balaam that he could still go to curse the Jews, but he could only speak the words that God put in his mouth. Finally Balaam arrived and tried to open his mouth to give a curse to the Jews, but the only words that came out were blessings. So anyway my point is that Balaam, my master, who thought he was a great prophet, couldn’t even see the angel that I, his donkey, could see.
As you can see, my Parsha has a lot of stuff about seeing and I think that is a good message to everybody and to me as I become a bat mitzvah to open our eyes and see the light and not the darkness, the blessing not the curse. This concept in Hebrew is known as הכרת הטוב hakarat hatov, which means always seeing and recognizing the good in everyone and everything.