There is a classic Jewish joke that begins with a psychiatrist saying, “I’m afraid, Mrs Goldstein, that your son has an Oedipus complex.”
“Oedipus schmoedipus!” comes the response. “What does it matter, as long as he loves his mother?”
It makes me laugh, not only because of the truth it carries about Jewish mothers, but because of the obtuseness that we live out in our everyday lives, for better and for worse, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
Oedipus as a story, written by Sophocles and performed in the mid-fifth century BCE, describes Oedipus, who has become king and fulfills numerous prophecies. One such prophecy is that he kills his father and marries his mother. As he seeks to find out who killed his father, everyone is aware of the murderer, except for Oedipus. It is only later he sees the truth, and gouges out his eyes in despair. It is a tragedy of the worst kind when we fail to see what we know to be true in our hearts.
This notion of seeing and not seeing is profoundly played out in Greek comedy/tragedy style in Balak, our Torah portion for this week. As the Moabite King Balak “sees” the Israelites assembled nearby, he becomes frightened and summons the great seer Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, to defeat them in battle. Balaam, for his part, sees this request for what it is: folly, as one cannot curse that which God has blessed. Balaam initially refuses the king’s request, but eventually agrees. As Balaam begins his journey, God places an angel in front of him and his donkey, effectively stopping them from continuing. Balaam, the great seer, can’t see the angel, but the donkey can. Balaam continues beating the donkey in an attempt to move her forward. And finally, the donkey speaks to Balaam, asking him why he is beating her. Only then does Balaam realize what is really going on, as God uncovers Balaam’s eyes to reveal the truth. No matter how hard Balaam tried not to see what he was really doing, he could not hide from the truth God revealed to him.
This is case with King Balak, as well. Instead of seeing the Israelites as a potential ally, he sees them through his fears and biases, and thus sees them as an enemy. Balak, too, can’t see what Balaam was trying to tell him; his insistence on seeing things the way things aren’t meant to be seen will cause disaster for him and his community. Ultimately, Balaam cannot curse the Israelites and proclaims one of the Torah’s more beautiful blessings, “Ma Tovu ohalechah Ya’akov, mishkinotecha Yisrael — How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”
Parashat Balak uses some form of the words seeing, saw, revealed or uncovered 21 different times. This points to the truth we sense in our hearts but cannot always understand; that what we need to see isn’t always what we choose to see and the different ways we try to block things from view. Whether those things are personal, about business or our community, our country or our world, we fall victim to wanting to see one thing, doing everything we can to avoid seeing what we need to see. The Torah’s point is clear: As uncomfortable as it might be to see the world as it is, the world needs brave seers. We need to be unafraid and, like Balaam, to bless that which needs blessing and curse that which needs cursing.
May God grant us that vision every single day.
Andrew Paley is the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom in Dallas and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.