Parshat Balak is one of the most perplexing parshiot in the Torah. But perhaps the most fundamental question of all is: Why is this parsha in the Torah to begin with?
My father, in Unlocking the Torah Text Balak 2, points out that Balak is the only parsha in the Torah that takes place outside of the presence of Am Yisrael. From the moment that God speaks to Avraham in Parshat Lech Lecha until Moshe’s death at the end of Sefer Devarim, the entire Torah revolves around the Jewish nation, and is written from their perspective.
And yet, Parshat Balak is different. Although Bnei Yisrael are indirectly involved in the story as the target of Bilaam and Balak’s wrath — they are not active participants — as the events take place outside of the nation’s purview. In fact, had the Torah not included this story, Am Yisrael might never have known that it had taken place at all!
So, why is it included in the Torah?
One possible answer could be that there are important messages embedded within the story, either from the specifics of the narrative, or some of the overarching mysteries that emerge from the parsha —, the existence of a non-Jewish prophet, the talking donkey, Bilam’s curses that turn into blessings and the meaning of the blessings themselves. Each of the aspects of this story could reveal many important lessons for us to learn.
However, perhaps, we can suggest an alternative explanation — one that emerges, not from the content of the parsha — but specifically from the parsha’s viewpoint. Perhaps, the issue that troubled us initially is exactly the lesson that Hashem wants us to learn. The world does not simply exist from the point of view of Am Yisrael. It exists from the viewpoint of many other nations and people as well. And while the Torah itself is, first and foremost, a guidebook for Am Yisrael, as well as a recounting of our nation’s history — which is why it is almost exclusively written from the viewpoint of Am Yisrael — God specifically shifted the viewpoint for one parsha, in order to teach us to see beyond ourselves and our perspectives.
As individuals, with our own set of personality traits, needs and desires — we experience the world from our own unique standpoint. No two people have the same set of life experiences paired with the same innate character traits —and, therefore inevitably, no two people experience the world in the same way. On the one hand, this is part of the beauty of society — as we each have the potential to change the world for the better, bringing our unique viewpoint to impact on the society around us.
At the same time, this reality can also cause friction. It is truly hard for us to step out of ourselves and understand another person’s viewpoint and perspective. And especially, when a disagreement arises, we tend to lock into our own opinion and viewpoint, failing to appreciate that others may view things differently.
This is particularly true in the world we live in today. The “I” generation places a premium on each person’s right to be in touch with themselves and express their own individuality. In addition, the advent of the internet and social media has greatly furthered a polarization in our society —- people can no longer even listen to each other’s viewpoints.
On a Jewish national level, the challenge is real, as well. Thousands of years of exile and persecution caused us to focus inward, as we have fought for our survival, both physically and spiritually. It has also meant that as a community, we tend to view the world around us through the needs of our community, and we have fought vigorously for those needs.
And yet, while our own needs and perspectives — both individually and communally — should always be top priority, perhaps this week’s parsha teaches us that we also must leave space to recognize the viewpoints of others. We may not always agree with those viewpoints, but being able to recognize that they may see the world differently than we do is an important challenge to meet. God created a world with millions of individuals, each with their own unique vantage point — and we must be able to, at times, move beyond our own personal and communal worlds in order to realize this.
The psychologist, Jean Piaget, outlined four stages of cognitive development that children ideally go through as they grow. During the preoperational stage, from ages 2 to 7, children are wholly egocentric — they are only aware of their own needs, unable to see beyond themselves and recognize the needs of others. Yet, as they grow older and transition into the formal operational and concrete operational stages, children develop an ability to see things from the perspective of others.
And yet, if we don’t actively cultivate this ability within our children, it can easily be lost. Our kids can become consumed with their own selfish wants —- which is further pushed by encouragement from an outside world — and lose their ability to appreciate the viewpoint of others. We must raise our kids with a firm understanding of our own perspectives; yet also teach them to recognize that others will experience and view things differently. We should enable them to see beyond themselves; to realize that the world is quite vast, with numerous viewpoints and perspectives. This message should be conveyed loud and clear: We certainly don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, but we should at least be able to recognize their different viewpoints.
Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom!
Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement advisor/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at: [email protected]