Parashat Balak opens with a fearful king dreading the arrival of the Israelite desert wanderers to his land of Moab. When he speaks to the leaders of neighboring Midian, Balak’s fear refigures the approaching Israelites as grazing animals: “Now, this assembly will nibble away everything around us as the ox nibbles the grass of the field” (Numbers 22:4). In a single verbal gesture, the king paints the migrants as both harmless ruminants and a destructive force to undermine the sustenance of his civilization. Through the lens of his own fear, Balak dehumanizes and dismisses while at the same time exaggerating the potential power of his perceived enemy. This is the rhetorical currency of oppressive movements throughout history—to claim at once the ultimate worthlessness and the unfathomable power of the other.
In Parashat Sh’lach, the Israelite scouts who had returned disheartened from touring the land aroused the people’s fear by speaking about how they thought they were seen: “We were in our own eyes like grasshoppers (chagavim) and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). In our parasha, Balak confirms the scouts’ account. In his first message to Balaam, to beseech the sorcerer to curse the Israelite people, Balak says of the Israelites: “Look, it has covered the eye of the land (hinei khisah et ein ha’aretz) and it is sitting over against me” (Numbers 22:5). That language is familiar from the plague of locusts in Mitzrayim, in which Moshe warns Pharaoh that those creatures “will cover the eye of the land (ve-khisah et ein ha’aretz), and one will not be able to see the land” (Exodus 10:5). In contemporary language, Balak may have called the Israelites a “ticking time bomb”—by referencing locusts, he gestures at an animal that is often harmless but can become devastating. Tobiah ben Eliezer (Lekach Tov, 11th-century) named the paradox emerging in Balak’s eyes: Locusts are weak and yet a king cannot stand before them.
Balak’s language adds a dimension to the Israelite scouts’ expression of fear on entering the land—being seen as grasshoppers means not only being seen as insignificant, but also being feared as a purveyor of famine. In this encounter, as in our contemporary circumstances, the longstanding resident and the relative newcomer are mutually afraid.
With the parallel drawn between Israelites and locusts, what then does it mean to cover the eye of the land? Targum Onkelos reads the verse in Exodus (regarding the actual locusts) as “they will cover the eye of the sun (veyachfei yat ein shimsha),” describing the experience of seeing locusts in flight—the density of the swarm darkening the sky and covering the sun’s eye shape as seen from the earth. As several commentators point out, the Israelites migrating on foot would not block out the sky, so what is indicated here in Numbers must be something else. When he describes the Israelites as covering the eye of the land, Balak’s vivid language prefigures the seeing and not seeing that will figure prominently in the story ahead; here that in/visibility carries multiple dimensions of fear:
- Fear of what is concealed: Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz (Panim Yafot, 18th-century) proposes that the Divine clouds of glory that surrounded the Israelites on their desert wanderings would have blocked them physically from view, arousing Balak’s fear of needing to fight an invisible interloper.
- Personal fear as a leader: Bemidbar Rabba reads covering the eye of the land as Balak’s fear on learning of the conquest of neighboring kings: “The ones who closed the eyes that the land depended on—Sichon and Og—are here with me—what will I do?”
- Existential fear for the future of the region: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century) reads in Balak’s voice: “In all the neighboring lands which our eyes can see, we see not the old nations, but only this one…I do not know whether they will attack me, but I am afraid, so must stand against them for the good of the collective.”
The common aspect of all these fears is an inversion. Balak perceives the Israelites as covering the eye of the land, which leads to a covering of his own eyes, a narrowing of his imagination in possibilities for their encounter. The fear possesses Balak and focuses him on cursing his perceived adversary. In our contemporary reality, we too know the experience of being taken over by fear, how that fear changes our perceptions of those we see, allowing us to speak to ourselves about other human beings with simultaneously demeaning and exaggeratedly elevating language. We know what it feels like to see the eye of the earth disappear, to find our own eyes covered, degrading the humanity of seer and seen.
And yet, there is a possibility that from a place of closing our eyes, we might reverse our perceptions: a remedy for dehumanizing sight is indicated in the malady itself. In a Hasidic reading of our verse, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (S’fat Emet, 19th-century) proposes that covering the eye of the land is an act of cultivating interior consciousness: “This is the earth-ward gaze that the children of Israel cultivated in order to see only the inner reality of every thing, annulling the exterior gaze that shows how things seem to be with the physical eyes.”
The S’fat Emet offers a practice to remedy the dehumanizing possibilities of the assumptions we all make on first glances, colored by our fears and our pre-conceived notions of what we will see. Cultivating interiority, we can create an inner space to question our first seeing. Knowing that what we see on the surface is but one dimension of a much deeper reality, we broaden our capacity to respond to the other human beings we encounter in the world. It is this possibility present in covering the eye of land that enables us to see beyond our fears, knowing each other as human beings rather than grasshoppers.
Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman, 2010 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is the Jewish Chaplain at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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