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Balak: Imagine That

If you have ever played competitive sports, you’ll know about the power of visualization. As both a former player and coach, I know that some of the best free-throws and well-executed plays were born not only out of physical practice, but also from the continuous exercising of the imagination, as players closed their eyes and pictured themselves succeeding at the task set for them. This is the power of what we see, and the potential power that is unleashed from what we allow ourselves to imagine.

In this week’s Parsha, Balak, the king of Moav, plots to overpower the Jewish people as they approach his land on the way to Eretz Yisrael. He calls upon the prophet Bilam to curse the Jews in the hopes that this curse would weaken them. Rather than simply sending Bilam on his mission immediately, however, Balak takes Bilam on a short show-and-tell expedition. The pasuk (22:41) tells us that Balak “took Bilam and brought him up to the heights of Baal and from there Bilam saw [the Jewish people].” Only after Bilam went to see Klal Yisrael from this vantage point did he then set out to curse – and inadvertently bless – them.

Rav Wolbe, in his sefer Shiurei Chumash, questions why Balak decided to show Bnei Yisrael to Bilam before having him curse them; could Bilam not have cursed them from Moav? Rav Wolbe cites the Ramban, who explains that what a person sees can affect them profoundly, and therefore what Bilam would say about the Jews depended upon his impression of them based on his viewing them with his own eyes. Thus, when he then set out to curse them, Bilam would be able to visualize this nation in his mind’s eye, and this would directly influence his words.

The Ramban notes that the Jewish people themselves capitalized on this power of visualization in the war against Amalek, when Moshe chose to ascend the mountain to pray for Bnei Yisrael to be victorious. Ramban there (Shemos 17:9) notes that Moshe could have prayed from his tent but chose instead to place himself strategically in a place from which he could see the Jewish people, and where they in turn could see him, because this would positively impact Moshe’s Tefilos and the Jews’ trust and faith in God (through the sight of Moshe’s raised arms).

The power of perception is not limited to what we can see in front of us, but includes also that which we cause ourselves to envision through our imagination. As with almost every human quality we possess, both of these kinds of visualizing can be used both to our benefit as well as to our detriment. If you ever “accidentally” watched a horror movie – and are not particularly interested in that genre of film – you most certainly can recall a graphic or terrifying scene you wish you never saw (and I apologize profusely for likely recalling that image to you at this very moment). At the same time, however, if you ever witnessed Birchas Kohanim at the Kotel on a holiday, or saw a sunset over a beautiful ocean, or watched a young child learning side by side with his father or grandfather, you can also conjure up the feelings of pure, unadulterated spiritual connection you experienced then at times when you are feeling distant or disenchanted.

Rav Wolbe notes that the Kuzari writes that the power of imagination was actually given to us as a means of helping to aid our spiritual growth. Visualization helps us to picture things in our history such as the Beis HaMikdash or Yetzias Mitzrayim. In fact, much of the Pesach seder involves using our imagination directly to visualize the Exodus as part of the Mitzvos of the night! Furthermore, we can use our power of visualization to see ourselves succeeding spiritually where perhaps we have heretofore been struggling.

What did Bilam see when he gazed upon the Jewish people, and what did that lead him to say? The pasuk, one that many Kindergarteners know by heart, tells us. “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenosecha Yisrael!” (24:5). Though he set out to curse the Jewish people, it sounds as though Bilam actually ended up commenting on their home decorating! Rashi explains that Bilam saw that Bnei Yisrael’s tents were set up so as to ensure that no window or entrance directly faced another’s window or entrance, a display of modesty that impressed Bilam deeply. What Bilam saw was the efforts of Klal Yisrael to maintain a high standard regarding what they allowed themselves to see, further evidence that what we see has a profound impact upon us.

This lesson can be utilized in many practical ways in our lives. For some of us, this may mean becoming mindful of what we are exposed to, and what we ourselves are seeing. For others, this may mean exercising our power of imagination to visualize ourselves reaching our personal, spiritual, emotional, academic, or professional goals.

Of course, as we approach the 3 weeks, let us not forget the importance of gazing upon other Jews favorably, of seeing the good in those who live their Torah Judaism differently from us - where one might see a “fanatic,” it is imperative to look upon our fellow Jews who perhaps uphold more stringent standards of modesty, or those who “dwell alone,” as Balak described the Jewish people, and see the “Ma Tovu,” as Bilam did. Furthermore, as the Kuzari notes, the power of imagination can be used to help us to visualize eras of our history to which it is difficult to connect, such as the times of the Beis HaMikdash. As we approach the three weeks, a harrowing and challenging time, let us each make an effort to internalize and apply the power of visualization to our lives in the ways that will most contribute to our personal and collective growth.

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