We experience holiness and blessing when we truly see the other with an open heart. This is something that the Prophet Balaam is unable to do in this morning’s Torah portion.
We can understand Balaam through Martin Buber’s notion of relationships. For Buber, most of our relationships are what he calls “I-It.” We treat others as objects from whom we can get something. These are transactional encounters. What can this person do for me?
Think about the numerous interactions we have every day – at home, at school, at work. Most are transactional. This person is going to ring up my purchase, or bring me my food, fold my laundry, turn in a report, and so on.
The other type of relationship, the far more significant one, Buber calls “I-Thou.” This occurs when we encounter the other in its entirety. My whole being comes face to face with another’s whole being – and that encounter demands a response. Our relationships are only meaningful to the extent that we can truly encounter the other.
Ultimately, according to Buber, we enter into a relationship with God when we relate to the other as Thou.
Balaam treats everyone whom he encounters as an It. All of his relationships are transactional. He never really responds to Balak and his emissaries. They want to hire him to curse the Israelites, and he shrewdly leads them on: “I can’t do anything except what God tells me… but stay until tomorrow, maybe I’ll be able to come with you after all.” We get the impression that Balaam is stringing them along just to convince them to raise his pay.
Balaam treats his donkey as an It as well. The poor animal is only a mode of transportation to him. That is why Balaam does not hesitate to beat her when she stops moving. One would think that an animal that had been a faithful steed and companion all these years would deserve a bit of compassion – but Balaam considers her only for what she can do for him. He never truly sees her.
Because Balaam is treating everyone as an It, he cannot perceive the angel, who is a stand-in for God. His inability to authentically relate to the Other renders him incapable of sensing God’s Presence.
After two rounds of God placing words of blessing into Balaam’s mouth, he has at least recognized the pattern. So what does he do? Balaam looks down on the Israelites, and sees them encamped tribe by tribe. He sees something that impresses him, for this leads him to offer his own words of blessing:
Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mish-k’notekha Yisrael.
“How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”
What is so “lovely” about the Israelites? That they truly relate to one another. They encounter their children, their parents, their spouses, their friends and neighbors as Thou, to use Buber’s terminology. It is this quality that makes them beloved of God and deserving of blessing.
Listen closely to how Balaam expresses the people’s loveliness. How lovely are your ohalim, “your tents,” and your mish-k’not, literally “your tabernacles,” or sanctuaries.
For a nomadic people in the wilderness, “your tents and your tabernacles” is the equivalent of saying “your homes and your synagogues.”
Balaam recognizes in our ancestors a quality that he himself lacks – that they treat one another as human beings with a divine spark. Not as an It from whom I can derive some advantage, but rather as a Thou who reflects the image of God. That is why God’s Presence resides with the people.
This quality has characterized Jewish life every since. The Torah’s commandments and our people’s traditions orient us towards living in meaningful relationships with each other – both in the home, and in community. This is how we experience holiness.
Holiness is encountered in relationships – but only when those relationships are unencumbered by greed and selfishness.
In his new book Relational Judaism, Dr. Ron Wolfson identifies the different levels of relationships that Jews encounter:
Between you and yourself; you and your family, your friends; between you and Jewish living and learning; between you and your community; Jewish Peoplehood; the State of Israel; and the whole world; and finally, between you and God.
Each of these levels of relationship can be holy, but only if we make the effort to encounter the other before us. If we want to experience holiness in our fast-paced, high tech world, we have to make an effort to encounter one another with our hearts. Our Jewish traditions in both home and community, if we would embrace them, are key.
Here are just a few examples. On Friday night, as part of the table rituals, it is customary for parents to bless their children. Granted, sometimes it can be a challenge to get them to sit still, but that moment of intimacy between parent and child, mediated through ancient words from the Torah, creates an opportunity for an I-Thou encounter.
Now shift to synagogue. At the end of Shabbat morning services, before we start eating, we recite kiddush together. Not individually, but together. Our custom is that, before reciting the final blessing over the wine, the leader chants savri, and everyone responds: l’chayim. “To life!” It is often a light-hearted moment, but think about what is taking place. We have come together from all over the place at the end of a busy week, spent time praying together, and are about to share a meal. But we don’t rush. We pause to declare the holiness of Shabbat. Not privately, but all together. And we shout out “to life!” It could be an intensely powerful moment, a joyous and holy moment, if we open our hearts.
And finally, when someone is in mourning for a loved one, the announcement goes out about shiva minyanim, services to be held in that person’s home. The community comes to them. And that includes for people we do not personally know. In a time of loss, we do not leave a person to be alone. We make sure that the mourner has a minyan, a community, to give the mourner an opportunity to recite the mourner’s kaddish – a prayer that is all about holiness.
When Balaam looked down on the Israelites, this must have been what he saw. Parents and children, friends, neighbors, and strangers, all treating one another as human beings in the image of God. People celebrating time together with joy and life. People comforting one another during periods of loss. When Balaam saw an entire nation living this way, he recognized something that had been missing in his own life. He recognized that God was with this people, and that they were truly blessed.