Before we moved home, the way back from the synagogue lead through the local park which was open all the time. Our previous dog Safi loved this part of the walk. But one pitch dark night he lay down at the entrance and flatly refused to move. ‘You sense something wrong,’ I thought and, although for myself I could see nothing amiss, I took his advice and chose a different route.
In tomorrow’s Torah reading, Balaam’s donkey sees what he, the famous seer who commands a high fee to foresee the future, cannot. Three times the donkey ‘sees’ and three times Balaam punishes her, for what proves to be his own blindness.
What in life do we notice; what do we fail to perceive?
In A Passage to India two of E M Forster’s very British characters ask themselves, bewildered by a culture they cannot fathom:
Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness?
Not everything possible enters our awareness and, like Balaam, we often punish those who inconvenience us with their deeper, or more challenging, perceptions.
God eventually makes Balaam’s donkey speak, a miracle, say the rabbis (who were generally suspicious of such supernatural interventions) prepared since the six days of creation. Balaam seems not the least surprised and enters unperturbed into a domestic quarrel with his ass.
One wonders what else the poor animal in her long experience of humility and humiliation might have known but never expressed. Perhaps, in an analogous manner, those wiser around us refrain from telling us what they understand all too well, realising that we will only react in defensive anger to the futile attempt to make us understand. Why should they suffer the snub of our insensitivity?
In the end God performs a second opening, this time of Balaam’s eyes. The seer finally sees. For most of us, the challenge of deepening our faculties of perception not just in our eyes but in our hearts, takes far longer. It belongs to the essence of our life’s journey.
Interestingly, neither of Hebrew’s two words for ‘open’ is used here, neither petach, often employed to describe the opening of the heart, nor pekach, the unveiling of the eyes in deeper discernment.
Rather, God ‘revealed’ to Balaam his own eyes. He finally notices what stands right before him, the angel blocking his path which his donkey had long noted – and taken those evasive steps to avoid which had so irritated her owner.
‘Reveal’ is a powerful term to use for so basic a perception. But revelation often lies in the simplest things. ‘I saw it, but didn’t really see; I looked, but never noticed’: we could all apply such sentences to ourselves, many times over.
There’s wonder in such moments of perception, like the friend who was told by the previous gardener: ‘After three months working here you’ll see kingfishers’, and, literally on the day he completed his third month, he saw them, and not because there’d been no kingfishers there before.
There’s compassion in such deeper comprehension, as when we begin to see into life in a manner we hadn’t before, like Moses, whose existence was turned inside out when he ‘saw into’ the sufferings of the slaves who’d been labouring next to the palace all the time. Or like the man who told me that when he was supporting his wife through her illness whole worlds opened up before them, offers of help, addresses to turn to, commiseration, encouragement. Then, he said, he saw into the lives of others with a gentler and kinder perception which, he confessed, he hadn’t found in himself before.
Open my heart, reveal my eyes, to see and feel the world with wonder and compassion