The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
The Evil Eye

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Our portion is named after Balak, king of Moab, who sought to put a curse upon the Children of Israel in the hope of frustrating their forward march to the Promised Land. Yet the central character in this portion's extraordinary narrative is undoubtedly Bilaam - considered as the greatest of all the gentile prophets - whose services King Balak solicited in order to mouth the curse.

Arrogance, lust and the evil eye

The Torah sages (Avot 5:19) characterized Bilaam and all who follow in his path as having three distinctive traits: an arrogant spirit , unrestrained lust and an evil eye .

Rashi on Numbers chapter 22 vv. 13 & 18 and chapter 24 v. 2 explains how the Biblical texts support this characterization. Numbers 22:13: "Bilaam rose up in the morning, and said to the princes of Balak: 'Go back to your land, for God refuses to give me leave to go with you ' " - Bilaam was demanding higher level emissaries commensurate with his supposed dignity. Numbers 22:18: " And Bilaam answered and said to the servants of Balak: 'If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold , I cannot go beyond the word of God." - i.e. Bilaam desired enormous wealth. Numbers 24:2: " And Bilaam lifted up his eyes and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe." - he sought to put his evil eye upon them.

It may be easy to understand how arrogance makes a person look upon the entire world as if it exists only to serve and aggrandize himself, while lust makes a person want enjoy all the pleasures of the world to the full. (The Hebrew root of the name of Bilaam has the connotation of "devour", "consume".) But what exactly is the "evil eye"?

We might have thought that the human eye merely takes in an objective photograph of whatever stands before it. But the Torah teaches that people tend to see what they want to see. "Do not go about after your own heart and your own eyes , after which you are used to going astray" (Numbers 15:39). From this verse we learn that the promptings of a person's heart and their own self-interest tend to govern how they look out upon the world and interpret what they see, unless they take themselves in hand so as to achieve a more objective view and not to err in their vision. The eye is simply the instrument with which the mind sees. The "evil eye" is the vision of a person who allows the untrammeled selfishness, jealousy and vindictiveness in his own heart to determine what he "sees" when he looks out at the world around him.

The selfish, arrogant, lustful person tends mostly to see only deficiency all around, critically examining everyone else to find only their faults and inadequacies. Instead of marveling at the unending diversity, beauty and wonder of God's creation - the "overflowing goblet" - such a person sees only how "the cup is half-empty".

This is the very opposite of the generous spirit that God wants us to cultivate in commanding us "to go in all His ways" (Deuteronomy 11:22). Just as He is kind, loving and compassionate to all, so too must we strive to restrain our innate selfishness and subjectivity, emulating His kindness and generosity in the way we look upon and deal with others.

The evil eye against Israel

Bilaam surveyed the orderly Israelite camp in the wilderness, and bursting with jealousy and fury, he sought to curse them eternally - though God did not let him. Similarly, many people around the world today see the tremendous success of modern Israel in science, technology, communications, social welfare and much else, yet instead wondering at God's purpose in elevating this tiny nation to center-stage in world affairs, they can do nothing but find fault in Israel's behavior at every juncture in its precarious existence, endlessly accusing and condemning this nation.

Israel has the highest number of scientists and technicians per capita in the world. It is to Israel that the world owes the first personal computer chips, cellular phones, wireless Internet, voice-technology, instant messaging, many life-saving drugs, the most advanced methods in agriculture, desalinization of sea water, and much else. Taking care of Jews around the world, Israel is the largest immigrant-absorbing nation on earth, while respecting other religions. It is the only country in the Middle East where Christians, Muslims and Jews are all free to vote.

In spite of all of this, all kinds of commentators, lobbyists, activists and other opinion-leaders all over the world would like to see Israel disappear off the face of the earth, even though God has promised that this will never happen.

Looking favorably

The story of Bilaam's evil eye is a moral lesson to all people. Just as God is overflowing with generosity and looks favorably on all, judging everyone positively, so he wants us to do the same.

The outstanding Chassidic luminary, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) explained how to look favorably on all people - including our own selves!

KNOW that you must judge all people favorably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad! If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor. This way you can bring them back to God.

You must also find the good in yourself. A fundamental principle in life is that you should always try to keep happy and steer well away from depression. When you start looking deep inside yourself, you may think you have no good in you at all. You may feel you are full of evil, and the negative voice inside you tries to make you depressed. Don't let yourself fall into depression. Search until you find some little good in you. How could it be that you never did anything good in your whole life?

When you start examining your good deed, you may see that it had many flaws. Maybe you did it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude. Even so, how could it be that your good deed contains no good at all? It must contain some element of good.

You must search and search until you find some good point inside yourself to give you new life and make you happy. When you discover the good that is still in you, you genuinely move from being guilty to having merit. Through this you will be able to return to God.

(From Rabbi Nachman's teaching of AZAMRA )




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