Friday, June 29, 2018

Parashat Balak: Vision

A Message for Parashat Balak 2018
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Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(Walt Whitman)

“Sight” and “vision” are dominant themes in Parashat Balak. Initially mentioned regarding King Balak – “And Balak…saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emorim…” (Bemidbar 22:2) – Bilaam “the seer” predictably engages in a variety of his own visions in the subsequent narrative. Indeed, Bilaam described himself by means of sight: “The man open-eyed,” who beheld God’s vision “prostrate with eyes unveiled” (24:3-4). And although his failure to see in the episode with the donkey and God’s angel is perhaps most memorable, Bilaam’s bird’s-eye view of Am Yisrael were in fact most effective in his general mission.

Erica Brown wrote about the irony that beset Bilaam’s vision. She noted that while he exceled in “long-distance” vision, Bilaam was blind to the cries of a donkey right in front of him.[1] Bilaam could see and perceive the strengths of Am Yisrael as a nation and articulate them in his several blessings in a way that their leader Moshe had failed. Whereas Moshe had errantly referred to them as “rebels” (20:10), Bilaam declared: “How goodly your tents, O Yaakov, your dwellings O Yisrael!” (24:5). His sight was strong enough to understand a distant nation that encamped in the valley below but was blind to his dream-visions of a forbidding God.

I believe that Bilaam’s sight may serve as a foil to that of the meragelim, as described in Parashat Shelah. Moshe chose a highly-regarded group of men and sent them to scout Canaan. He fundamentally instructed them: “And you shall see the land, what it is like…” (13:18). They were tasked with observing the various people and landscapes of Canaan and then generating an integrated report that captured the breadth of their sights. Upon their return, however, the meragelim recounted a vision of disparate details which was narrow in scope and limited in understanding. Instead of answering the general question of “what it is like,” the scouts revealed a tunnel-vision of the land by demonstrating its large-dimensioned fruits and locating each neighboring nation. The meragelim’s vision, in its contrast to that of Bilaam, is most recognizable to us: They saw and understood everything up close but were blind to a broader picture which required some distance.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks pondered whether our experience of life in continuous progress and motion may in fact be an illusion. He suggested that we might actually be piecing together countless “still-frames” in constant subconscious activity. Sacks posited that our eyes and brains may “take” perceptual stills of our surroundings and happenings – as on the “burst mode” of our iPhone cameras – and then somehow fuse them to give a sense of continuity and motion.[2] Shifting these two perspectives of sight and perception to our own biblical case studies, we might suggest that Bilaam failed at pausing between the successive snapshots to take stock of what was happening directly in front of him, while the meragelim became trapped in the many stills of the present and therefore failed to grasp the scene as a whole.

An individual who can see and appreciate the “stills” while also fusing them is rare. This ability is the mark of leadership. Moshe perhaps sensed that his father-in-law was imbued with this trait when he asked him to serve as “eyes” to the nation (10:31). And this is possibly the meaning of “the eyes of the nation” (15:24) as reference to the leadership. The difficulty in achieving a “fused vision” is the result of engagement in the day-to-day activities – the “stills”. It is extremely hard to keep involved in the present while concurrently connecting our vision to past and future as well. It is for the reason, I believe, that Bilaam thrived where Moshe had failed. Bilaam approached the nation as an outsider and he could therefore see past their many flaws which constantly surrounded their leader Moshe.

A leader is challenged to engage his vision with the countless “stills” of the present while at the same time realizing that they are mere fragments of a “fused” whole. Leadership gurus Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky captured this idea with “the balcony metaphor.” Dancing on the ballroom floor necessarily blinds you from the peripheral activity taking place several feet over. Asked about the dance you might therefore exclaim: “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.” Watching the scene from above, however, you can realize various patterns taking place on the dance floor. You can then see, for example, that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. A leader lives in constant flux between the ballroom floor and the balcony. Although he or she realizes that they are most effective while dancing on the ballroom floor, they are also aware that they can best understand what is actually happening when perched from above.[3]

The stories of Bilaam and the meragelim present us with starkly different approaches to vision. Whereas Bilaam could only see from a distance, the meragelim could only see what was near. A true leader adeptly utilizes both of these visions. Intimately involved in the present, he or she can nonetheless maintain a broader perspective and operate “both in and out of the game.”

[1] Erica Brown, Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anarchy in the Book of Numbers (New Milford, CT, 2013), pg. 169.
[2] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 161-84.
[3] Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston, MA, 2017), pg. 53. Cited by Brown (fn. 1).