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Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

“As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights,
there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.”
(Numbers 23:9)

Parashat Balak is named for a Moabite king who fears the wandering Israelites and hires Bilam, a local prophet, to curse them. His plan backfires when Bilam, recognizing God’s sovereignty, blesses the Israelites instead. This episode is completely disconnected from the narrative that comes before or after it. Ironically, it is precisely that disconnect that highlights a central message about leadership in the parasha (portion).

The Israelites are mired in their discontent. No water, death and loss, fearful of the future, and distrust in their leadership; all they see is doom and gloom. But what they see is a function of where they stand. Erica Brown (writer, educator, and scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington) notes Bilam is a prophet, a seer, “one-who-sees.” When Bilam looks at the Israelites, he sees something different than they do. Bilam sees the goodness of their tents and a glorious future for the people (Num. 24:5-9). The text offers two explanations for Bilam’s perspective: he’s an outsider and he views the Israelites from high up on the mountain.

The Israelites could see only problems while Bilam could see the potential. The Israelites could see only what was right in front of them while Bilam took the long view. The Israelites were nearsighted while Bilam was farsighted.

Any successful venture requires seeing what is immediately ahead on the road, as well as imagining the finish line miles down the road. Occasionally, one person can keep both fields of vision in focus and navigate effectively. More often, though, it takes a leadership team to cover all the perspectives. And every so often, it takes an outsider to point out what insiders lose sight of.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom


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