Updated: Jul 30, 2022
It's only natural to wonder if others see us the way we see ourselves. This perception helps us define who we are. And yet, our concern for how others interpret what they see can be paralyzing. We spend an awful lot of time preparing ourselves for how we want the world to see us, and probably even more time learning to accept that people will see us as we are, despite our best efforts.
This crucial distinction is vividly apparent in the chapters we're reading this week in the Torah. In a pivotal moment along the journey from slavery in Egypt to redemption in Israel, the Israelites cross through the land of Moab whose king, Balak, has determined their trespass is a threat to his own existence. So he hires a prophet, Bilaam, to curse the people and cause them harm. This is more than an encounter with an opposing force. There are questions to elevate this moment which teach us enduring values of holy perception.
When Balak looks out over the valley where the Israelites are camped and expect words of curse to pour forth from Bilaam's mouth, the people are met with the poetry of blessing. In the first of three messages Bilaam delivers in the presence of Balak, we are presented with the questions, “How can I damn whom God has not damned? How doom when YHVH has not doomed?” And while the implication is that he is referring to the entire people of Israel and not just a group or individual from among them, we also read the conclusion of his first inquiry, “Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel?”
In one of the rare moments of the Torah, this set of reflective questions posed from the outside looking in is as much a definition of how other nations perceive the Israelite nation as it is a definition of the people themselves. The Israelite nation possibly experienced a sort of social dysmorphia since leaving Egypt, where their defiance, disobedience and disloyalty condemned the older generation to wander the desert for the rest of their lives. Yet, these questions introduce a sense of wonder and awe into the narrative, one that propels the Israelite people toward a preferential or selective status. They cannot be cursed nor doomed, because their essential goodness radiates even when they don't even know someone is looking.
Despite their shortcomings, and even with the looming perception of a God who dooms an entire generation, this question opens up a dimension of identity that has not yet been expressed; that of dignity. There is something in the dignity of the people who merit the awe and respect of the nations around them. Surely, there are those who repudiate the No nation of Israel for its uniqueness. The text generously reminds us that God’s blessing for these people is greater than any attempt to provoke anger or curse among the nations. The people will be blessed by God. That is their covenant.
Most of the time, we believe that we can shape or manipulate the way that others see us. We may even think we can make others see something in us that may or may not be there. This fanciful episode is part of our sacred texts to remind us that the best versions of ourselves are seen when we're not even looking.