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Parshat Balak

Ayin tova”- A good eye

This parsha is not very flattering to Bilam. He is portrayed as a fraud who claims to possess abilities he does not have in pursuit of fame and fortune. Such a character mostly evokes pity. And yet Chazal collected different aspects of his personality and set him up as the symbolic antithesis of Avraham:

Whoever possesses the following three traits is a disciple of Avraham our forefather, and [one who possesses] the opposite three traits is a disciple of Bilam the wicked: The students of Avraham our forefather have a good eye and a meek spirit and a humble soul; the disciples of Bilam the wicked have an evil eye and a high spirit and a haughty soul. (Mishnah Avot 5, 19)

One of the defining traits of Bilam is his ayin ra’a, evil eye, which is contrasted with the ayin tova, good eye, of Avraham Avinu.

The concept of a “good eye” is generally understood as related to generosity and giving. This meaning is also found in other works of Chazal. For example, when we discussed the mitzvah of peah, the corner of the field given to the poor, we saw that Chazal separate between three different levels of giving depending on a person’s “good eye” or “bad eye.” There is also a section in the laws of transactions that discusses how the agreement between the two side is affected when a merchant sells something with a good or bad eye. (T.B. Bava Batra 37b) The list goes on.

Yet even though the meaning of the term is generally clear, in this context it does not seem to be the original meaning of ayin tova. The eyes of Bilam are a clear motif throughout the parsha- he does not see the angel who stands in his way, he is open-eyed (stum ayin), he peeks, looks, and sees the People of Israel in every way possible, from every possible perspective. This connection makes it clear that the concept of ayin ra’a is closely tied to the sense of sight rather than generosity of heart. The concept does not merely relate to physical ability to see, but rather the positive and negative ways we use sight and their spiritual ramifications. Similarly if the subject were a “good ear” we would not be discussing hearing tests but rather listening, obeying, and inattentiveness.

This contrast can also help us understand the “ayin tova” that characterizes a disciple of Avraham. The concept appears in another mishnah in Avot. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students to find a trait or characteristic that a person should cleave to Rabbi Eliezer, one of his students, answered “ayin tova.” Rav Betzalel Zev Shafran (19th century, Galicia) explains that Rabbi Eliezer did not base his conclusion on logic alone, but rather on textual proof:

Behold, the first “good” in the Torah was based on sight. And from this Rabbi Eliezer learned that the general way to achieve goodness is “ayin tova.” (Shut Haravaz, III, Choshen Mishpat 137)

This explanation points out that the first verse in the Torah to use the word good is related to sight: “And God saw the light that it was good…” (Bereishit 1, 4), therefore the ultimate good must be ayin tova, which is somehow related to sight. Often people of a certain stature are identified by their keen sight, their ability to use their vision effectively. A Torah scholar is known by their discerning gaze, their ability to identify and classify a broad range of subjects, and the attention they give to small details that most people overlook or can’t see- things that are beneath the surface. This assumption has certain practical ramifications. Torah scholars are given certain proveleges in the laws of hashavat aveida, returning lost objects. They don’t have to give signs to identify their lost items because it is assumed that they can identify what belongs to them even among many others identical items. (TB Bava Metzia 23b) In a number of places it is said that the gaze of a Torah scholar can paralyze, burn, or even kill a person. In one instance it turned someone into a pile of bones.  (TB Bava Batra 75a) As the verse says, “You look well into his place and he is not.” (Tehillim 37, 10) There are ways one can look at a person that can drain them of everything, or render them invisible.

But the opposite is also true. One look can lift the spirits and give new life. The Siftei Tzaddikim explains:

The holy descendents of Israel always look at the root and the life-force which comes from His blessed Holiness. In this way they maintain and add more elevated life-force and holiness drawing it from the highest blessings. And so every place that wise men direct their holy eyes goodness and blessing follows, as we learn in Tractate Avot ‘The disciples of Bilam the wicked possess an evil eye etc., but the disciples of Avraham our forefather, a”h, possess a good eye etc. (Siftei Tzadikim, Parshat Pekudei)

The Siftei Tzadkim claims that Jews have the ability to see beyond the material vestiges, the mistakes and sins that cloak one’s essence, to see straight to the root of a person’s soul. One who possesses this spiritual talent can discern between the essential and non-essential, collect a number of disparate elements into one unified principle, and coax out what is important so it can be used as a tool for personal and spiritual growth.

This is the ayin tova that was given to the disciples of Avraham. When Avraham dedicated himself to spread faith in the world he revealed the truths that had been written into the creation, something that was always there but no one was able to see before he showed them. He revealed that the world had a creator and owner; he exposed the world to things hidden in the depth of their hearts, things people had previously mistakenly directed towards sticks and stones.

Perhaps the most relevant source to understanding the concept of spiritual sight is found in the gemara in Chagiga. The tractate discusses the offering that was brought during the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, and also discusses the concept of aliya l’regel (pilgrimage to Jerusalem) which included the mitzvah of re’ayon and hitraut- to see and be seen- before God. There is a long agadta section dedicated to exploring what this sight entails. Here is but a part of that section, feel free to delve deeper on your own:

When Rav Huna arrived at this verse “yireh yireh” he would weep.

He said: If a servant’s master wishes to see him would he distance himself from him?

As it says, “Do you come to see My face? Who asked this from you who trample my courtyard?!” (T.B. Chagiga 4b)

Rav Huna’s words draw attention to the problematic nature of an encounter with God. On the one hand there is a tremendous desire for an encounter between man and God, and on the other hand this encounter demands tremendous purity. The “sight” is an awesome and terrible revelation. When a person appears before God he can be compared to a tablet whose letters are illuminated, all his secrets are revealed. There is a certain element of protection afforded to us when God hides His face (hester panim); in a way it is a profound kindness. Yet at the same time hester panim fills us with emptiness, neglect, and longing. Therefore the ideal is reiya- an encounter of revelation where we are seen and can see- with the goal of purifying our hearts and souls.

In contrast to the ayin tova of Avraham and his disciples that we described, Bilam the wicked had an ayin ra’a, an evil eye. His most notable talent was that he knew how to discern the proper time- the moment that God hides His face. In these moments of darkness he could have his way with the world, flood the world with forces of darkness and evil and draw attention to the weak points, highlighting them while neglecting the positive essence at their root.  

The mishnah in Avot concludes with a simple summary of the differences between the disciples of Avraham and the disciples of Bilam:

The disciples of Avraham our forefather benefit in this world and inherit a share in the world to come as it says: “There is to bequeath to the ones that love me, and I shall fill their treasures.” (Mishlei 8)

But the disciples of Bilam the wicked inherit gehenom and descend to a pit of destruction as it says: “And You, God, will bring them down to a pit of destruction, people of blood and deceit, they will not attain half their years and I will trust in You.” (Tehillim 55) (Mishnah Avot 5, 19)

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778