What Did Balaam Really See? Chukat – Balak, Numbers 19:1−22:1, 22:2−25:9
When I studied midrash with Rabbi Norman Cohen at HUC-JIR, we were taught to look for “hooks” in a biblical narrative. Hooks are interesting elements that might inspire creative interpretation. These may include repeated or rarely used words, seemingly unrelated narratives put next to each other, anachronisms, or seeming contradictions. A hook could also be questions about the lives and motivations of characters since the Bible rarely provides that kind of information.
This week, we read the story of Balaam, a sorcerer hired by the Moabite king to curse the Israelites. This tale contains several puzzling elements: a talking donkey, an angel with a fiery sword, and a non-Israelite sorcerer who becomes God’s mouthpiece.
After two attempts to curse the Israelites, we read that, “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). The subsequent blessing is so beautiful, it has become part of our morning liturgy:
Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov/ mishkenotecha Yisrael.
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob/ Your dwellings, O Israel!”
One question about this story has captured rabbinic imaginations for generations: What did Balaam see that led him to utter these words?
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan suggests:
“He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them” (Bava Batra 60a).
Another Talmudic passage suggests that the “tents” in question were houses of study (Sanhedrin 105b), while a modern midrash imagines them as theof people bowed in prayer (“My People’s Prayer Book,” Vol. 5). Ibn Ezra posits that Balaam was praising the Israelites’ military formation, while Rabbi Bradley Artson believes that Balaam was taking note of the distinctiveness of a “people that dwells apart” (“The Bedside Torah”). In 19th century Poland, Hasidic rebbe Menahem Mendel of Kotzk imagined that Balaam was admiring our people’s unity:
“Individual Israelites may not be that impressive, but it has always been the genius of the Jewish people that the whole added up to more than the sum of its parts. Ordinary people combine to create extraordinary communities, sites of holiness, and charity” (“Etz Chayim”).
More recently, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell offered a similar take:
“He sees the tents that are the homes and gathering places of the women, children, and men, who live as a community marked by care and mutual respect…. For a moment, Balaam sees a community as it can be: a society of mutual dependence and trust, a community where each person is treated with dignity” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”).
From this centuries-spanning dialogue, we see what each generation valued: modesty, military strength, prayer, study, and community. We can also see the communities they aspired to build. Distinctive communities that upheld traditions, respected boundaries, and cared for their members.
When my co-author, Erica Wovsaniker, and I set out to write a book of midrash for middle-grade readers, the question of what Balaam saw became central to our retelling of that story. In our version, each time Balaam looks out over the Israelite camp, he sees something different: food and water being brought to sick people on the edge of camp; people gathered to dance and sing prayers of gratitude; and children gathered at the feet of their elders to learn.
In “Maybe It Happened This Way,” we imagine that Balaam sees, “people who stay strong and keep growing…who trusted God to lead them out of Egypt and kept believing through nearly forty years of wandering…who share with each other, even when they barely have enough for themselves. People who teach their traditions to their children; who sing and dance even when life is hard…who stay true to themselves, no matter what anyone else says or does.”
He decides, “I can’t curse these people… even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. They are blessed.”
Another “hook” that always intrigued me was the question of whether this experience changed Balaam. One commentary suggests that both he and the king are unmoved, because “God’s word can only affect people who are willing to change” (“Etz Chayim Torah Commentary”). We imagined that, at the very least, Balaam’s career path went in a new direction. On the ride home, he tells his donkey:
“I don’t know if anyone will ever hire me as a sorcerer again…. But even if they do, I’m not going to curse people anymore. Cursing is a coward’s move. I’d much rather give a blessing…. I think I’ll send a blessing to the king, that he learns to see the good in people. Like I did” (“Maybe It Happened This Way”).
Seeing the Israelites at their best makes Balaam want to be a better person himself, which means making more of an effort to see the best in others.