What we see depends mainly on what we look for.
On most journeys, travelers find themselves at some point at a crossroads or a fork. Decisions they make at this juncture are often consequential in determining their future course. Being at an intersection can feel daunting and unnerving. But being there can also provide a sense of freshness and possibility. Peter Karoff in The World We Want believes that much of what happens in our lives takes places at intersections, “the place where things come together, sometimes abruptly and sometimes in a stream.”
Intersections are those moments when we make a decision to say something or to take an action, or perhaps we make no decision and the moment, the opportunity, passes by. What happens at those moments in time can determine the direction of our lives. What happens collectively is what determines the kind of world we live in, the kind of world we leave to our children.1Peter Karoff and Jane Maddox, The World We Want (Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2008), 71.
Confident leadership when confronting intersections can make all the difference in the quality of one’s judgment in amorphous times, and in the outcome of one’s decisions. Insecure, halting, or hesitant leadership at a crossroads can make followers nervous and anxious. Being able to articulate this anxiety and give others words to understand and overcome it can be a defining moment in the creation of leadership influence, as has been historically true for leaders who successfully navigated the public during times of war, natural disaster, or financial recession. It can make a difference in the world we leave as a legacy for those who come after us.
In the thick of the ancient wilderness journey, the Israelites lost perspective. Paralyzed by fear, they were unable to follow the singular direction of their leader and trust Moses when facing difficult intersections. As Moses’ authority wore thin, another voice of leadership suddenly appears in the biblical narrative, at a critical intersection, forcing the lens of leadership to widen and change. It is not the voice of action but the voice of reflection. And it is the voice of a total stranger: Balaam.
Balaam was a hire of King Balak, a king who dreaded the military legends associated with Israelite power and wanted to make sure that his people, the Moabites, were protected. The Israelites were numerous and, in his mind, dangerous. Balak sent messengers to the home of Balaam, a notorious leader in the magical arts, to ask him to curse the Israelites and minimize potential peril. With special words, he intended to “defeat them and drive them out of the land.” To that end, Balaam was Balak’s soothsayer of choice: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). The incredible talents and powers attributed to Balaam are integral to the story’s unraveling. Balaam, as we soon find out, lacked the requisite power to do anything to offend the Israelites, much less incapacitate their military might. We learn this not through the words of a powerful king or prophet, but through the words of a donkey.
Balaam confessed to the messengers that the Israelites were blessed and no amount of cursing on his part would change their fate. Balak was disappointed and would not take no for an answer. He sent dignitaries with promises of rich rewards, believing that perhaps the offer had lacked the right monetary incentive. Balaam finally caved in to the king’s persuasion yet made clear, even as he agreed to the mission, that he was powerless in this instance. He could not change Israelite destiny. Nevertheless, he saddled his donkey. The donkey in the story appears as an incidental prop in the mounting drama.
Up to this point, the story lacks imaginative detail. It was perhaps a rather ordinary day in the life of a soothsayer. But the day Balaam chose to curse the Israelites was not an ordinary day.
He was riding on his donkey with his two servants alongside when the donkey caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields, and Balaam beat the donkey to turn her back onto the road. The angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards with a fence on either side. The donkey, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against a wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the donkey with his stick. The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Num. 22:22–28)
Our poor donkey tried to appeal to Balaam’s compassion and his master’s sense of the familiar. Have I ever done something like this before? As your loyal and animate carrier, have I ever before let you down? The donkey begged for a little positive attention simply to warn her master that he was embarking on a treacherous path, both literally and spiritually. An angel stayed the animal in its tracks. The donkey saw the presence of this divine messenger and was powerless to move forward, despite all of Balaam’s misdirected violence. Suddenly, we are aware that the minor, subordinate characters in this story were the ones controlling destiny.
The push/pull movement of donkey and rider jerked forward and stopped three times. After beating the donkey three times, Balaam finally realized that something was going on beyond some random hesitation on the part of his conveyance:
Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had my sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered “No.” (22:29–30)
Rembrandt painted Balaam and his donkey virtually intertwined in a terrifying, vertical vision of obstruction. The donkey throws back its rider; it is horrified by what it sees. Balaam’s eyes are huge and myopic, yet they fail to see the sword-wielding angel in front of him. He had little idea of the obstruction that awaited him because he could not engage in the most elementary act of seeing. As a prophet, a seer, he was virtually blind.
The term “donkey” and other references to it or animals in the same family have been traditionally regarded as a human insult. To compare someone to a donkey implies one is worthy of ridicule. It can signal lewd or ridiculous behavior. It can also imply stubbornness and crassness. The donkey as a beast of burden makes it one of the lowliest animals in the animal kingdom. The snake is the shrewd animal; the donkey, the poor imbecile of an animal. Although common associations with the donkey make this beast into a dumb and foolish creature that could not handle anything more than simple transportation, ancient Jewish tradition regarded the donkey very differently. Its simple station made it the perfect conveyor of innocence and obedience, and not only in the book of Numbers. In Genesis, Jacob’s son Issachar was regarded as a “strong-boned donkey” in the blessings he received from his father. Issachar selected life as a farmer and was bound, as a result, to a life of patience, bowing his head to the burdens of the land and plow (Gen. 49:14–15). Later, in the prophetic work of Zechariah, the savior of the Jewish people is described as someone who will be “lowly and riding upon a donkey, even upon a colt the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). This notion of the messiah riding a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem and proclaiming a new era of possibility helps sanctify the ordinary. It offers hope to anyone in a low station that the spark of messianic glamour, generally reserved for the erudite or the aristocracy, may be within range. The donkey in this instance symbolizes the superiority of the poor, devoted faithful over the well-positioned elite. The image of the donkey bearing the messiah turns our notions of merit inside-out and upside-down.
This image was not only reserved for swaths of prophetic texts. The image of a donkey bearing the seeds of redemption is also part of the subconscious world of dreams and dream interpretation. In Berakhot, we find the following statement in a list of animals that appear in dreams and hold special and specific meanings: “If one sees a donkey in a dream, he may hope for salvation, as it says, ‘Behold your king comes to you’; he is triumphant and victorious, lowly and riding upon a donkey.”2Berakhot 56b. Contrary to expectation, a dream about a donkey is not a sign that the dreamer is absurd or insignificant. Redemption may come from unexpected places in the hands of unsuspecting people and unassuming animals.
Rashi explains that the donkey saw the angel even though Balaam did not in order to impart specific wisdom: “the Holy One, blessed be He, gave an animal power to see more than the human for just because he possesses sense, his mind would become perturbed if he sees noxious beings.”3Rashi, Numbers 22:23. Animals can sometimes “see” more clearly than humans because they sense danger approaching and experience anxiety in ways that human beings do not. We know that many animals are exquisitely attuned to the weather and changes in climate. Many animals can see farther, are able to hear more acutely, or possess a more sensitive sense of smell than humans. Their sensual universe differs greatly from that of human beings, even when confronting the same set of circumstances. What is invisible becomes highly problematic. Unseen walls obstruct paths forward. Curses become blessings. Ancient seers fail to see anything. Simple donkeys hold the key to advancement and redemption. The story asks us to invert our notions of vision, justice, and merit and suspend our long-held views of those who are simple and unsophisticated.
When we move away from the donkey narrative into Balaam’s prophecies, we find a different man, one filled with wise portents of the future. God filled Balaam’s mouth with words that suggest that no matter who or what stood in Israel’s way, Israel would, in the end, be triumphant. We read of this in Numbers 23:21, “No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe is in view for them. The Lord their God is with them, and their King’s acclaim in their midst.” No king of flesh and blood could damage their success because Israel was assured divine protection from God. Several medieval commentators understand the expression, “No harm is in sight for Jacob,” as a statement of fact: God saw no wrong in the Israelites, nor did He have cause for concern about their future. Nahmanides translates “harm” and “woe” as different forms of sin and dishonesty that are simply not present in Israel: “No man can see in Jacob nor in any Israelite evil or deception.”4Nahmanides ad loc. (Numbers 23:21). If God did not see these troubles besetting Israel, then certainly Balaam would not be able to find them and imprecate Israel on this basis.
This cheery picture does not accord with God’s treatment of the children of Israel throughout their desert stay. Jacob’s children often did come to harm. Other commentators, Rashi and his grandson Rashbam among them, do not regard Israel as free of sin. They create a more nuanced view of God’s relationship with the Israelites. When Israel transgresses God’s word, God does not hold them entirely accountable; He overlooks their sins just a bit. This reading is comforting on one level, but disturbing on another. Rashbam follows this line of thinking, saying that God does not want to punish Israel even when they sin. He cites as support a verse from Job, “When He sees iniquity, He does not discern it” (Job 6:30). God turns the other way, trying to give the benefit of the doubt to His erring people. The rose-colored glasses that are used to view Israel’s behavior should be worn, through implication, by Balaam and all others who try to stand in Israel’s way. If God is predisposed to Israel’s goodness, then Balaam should be as well. Balaam, along with various kings and leaders, did not have an insider’s commitment to Israel; he, therefore, would not have felt this bias.
God tried through repeated and ultimately successful attempts to have Balaam see Israel with different eyes. It is no coincidence, then, that the Hebrew Bible emphasizes Balaam’s eyesight several times; finally, he himself claimed that he spoke with the “word of the man whose eye is true” (Num. 24:3). With these eyes, he saw not a people worthy of curses but an encampment, “like palm-groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the Lord, like cedars beside the water. Their boughs drip with moisture; their roots have abundant water” (Num. 24:6–7). The rich, watery images are a contrast to the way the Israelites saw themselves, in a dry, arid climate stuck with the same dreary food that dried their gullets. God punished the Israelites for not counting their blessings, just as God instructed a foreign prophet to praise them rather than curse them.
The ability to overlook faults cannot be the responsibility or privilege of God alone. The Israelites were not themselves prepared to wear rose-colored glasses. They continually found fault with their freedom, usually emphasizing short-term, immediate problems and losing sight of the long-term ends. Even after God forced Balaam to emit poetic praises of Israel, the Israelites went on to pursue Moabite women and idol worship. The imbalance once again led to dissatisfaction, death, and suffering.
Our two animal narratives in Numbers, the biting snakes and Balaam’s donkey, both illustrate the power of sight to repulse and to edify. The Israelites in both the serpent and Balaam narratives were selective in what they wanted to look at, but eventually were forced to concede that the eyes take in the truth of the matter, despite what the mind or the soul may have wished to see. The animal in one Numbers story represents the lowest human self; the animal in the next sees beyond what any human can. Both narratives are literally blind to reality and magnify the importance of vision. The animals were there to teach the humans to see themselves. Whether they learned from the animals or not is a matter of debate.
From a leadership perspective, Balaam was critical to the Israelite journey because he served as an outside perspective on greatness when insiders often only saw problems. Heifetz and Linsky, the leadership writers cited earlier, use a metaphor that parallels the message of this narrative: the view from the balcony. The view on the dance floor is up close and personal. Leave that view for higher ground and look down on the scene, and the dance floor will look different from the balcony. Leadership demands that we take in both views. High up, Balaam saw the Israelite tents and praised their encampment. He made wide-angle lens comments on the Israelite future, and his statements continuously reference eyesight:
Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true.
Word of him who hears God’s speech.
Who obtains knowledge from the Most High,
And beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate but with eyes unveiled:
What I see for them is not yet,
What I behold will not be soon:
A star rises from Jacob,
A scepter comes forth from Israel. (Num. 24:15–17)
Balaam saw what the Israelites could not see because they were too close; they were not standing and looking down from a high point. As a result, they became blinded to their success and their stature in the eyes of others. Their near-sightedness made them blind to their long-distance goal. They sacrificed broader, expansive vision for the narrow view that was right in front of them.
In Numbers 11, crushed by disappointment and hunger, the Israelites cried out, bellowing complaints. “Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent” (Num. 11:10). Contrast this to Balaam’s famous blessing: “How goodly are the tents of Jacob” (Num. 24:5). Whatever strife was taking place internally was not visible from Balaam’s distance. Where the Israelites saw themselves as grasshoppers and believed that others saw them that way too, Balak described them as mighty oxen who lick up the grass. They looked in a mirror and saw themselves as small, insecure, and vulnerable. Balaam was an outsider. He looked from far away and saw something else entirely.
Balaam could only see from a distance, but he was blind to the cries of a donkey right in front of him. In contrast, the Israelites were terribly near-sighted; everything at a distance was blurred. Up close, they could only see loss and challenge. No larger landscape of possibility came into view. They did not see a land of promise in the distance, only a stretch of hunger and aridness right in front of them. They criticized their leader for taking them on a journey to nowhere and justified their own violence and rebelliousness as an appropriate response to ambiguity.
The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen authored dozens of books on spirituality and gave up a prestigious academic career to work with the developmentally disabled in a community in Canada. As an academic, Nouwen taught a course in Yale’s Divinity School called “Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry,” using early stories and sayings from fourth- and fifth-century Christian Egyptian hermits. The format is similar to the one found in Ethics of the Fathers. A Japanese student in his course, Yushi Nomura, was so taken with these sayings that he used the Japanese art of calligraphy and illustration to bring many of these sayings into an artistic framework. The passages often communicate the challenges of desert solitude and over-contemplation. One in particular targets what happens at a critical negative intersection of the soul:
Abba John the Little said: We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.5Yoshi Nomura, Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 7.
Sometimes our eyesight fails. We justify our negative behaviors and condemn someone else’s, usually those of our leaders. We look good, and our leaders look weak. Instead of self-criticism, we adopt a posture of self-justification, not realizing that dishonesty is a far heavier burden in the end. Balaam, for all of his inability to see danger immediately in front of him, was able to change his course and bless greatness from a distance. He showed us at a difficult intersection of our journey how much we compromised our aspirations for temporary gratification and lost sight of what really mattered. Leaders can help us gain perspective when we lose it. Leaders can take us to the balcony or the top of a mountain and offer us an alternative view of the same scenario. Sometimes it takes an outside set of eyes to see oneself with clarity. Sometimes, we look better to others than we look to ourselves.