In the introduction to his third blessing to Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam describes himself as a “shetum ha-ayin” (24:3).
The Ramban notes that there is no similar word to “shetum” in the entire Tanach.
Among the explanations given for this term, as noted by Rashi, is that Bilaam only had one eye. The other eye was a just the socket. The word “shetum” means “open,” and thus when Bilaam describes himself, he is referring to his open eye socket, that has no eye in it, leaving him with one working eye.
Symbolically, as many scholars have noted, the notion of Bilaam having only one functioning eye is significant. When looking at a person, we are capable of using two different “eyes” – a critical eye, and a complimentary eye: One eye looks suspiciously, cynically and judgmentally, searching to find fault. The other eye looks in a far more positive and accepting manner, focusing on the good in a person, generally holding people in a favorable light. Both “eyes” are important for us to properly relate to the world around us. Certainly, we must judge favorably and highlight the positive aspects in people, but we also need the critical eye to be discerning, so we can distinguish for ourselves between proper and improper, and between good and evil.
Bilaam, however, saw with only one eye – the eye that looks critically and sees the evil in everything.
The Mishna in Avot 5:19 distinguishes between the “ayin tova” of Avraham and the “ayin ra’a” of Bilaam. Avraham graciously welcomed and fed three desert travelers whom he had mistaken for idolaters, and he prayed fervently on behalf of the sinful city of Sedom. He looked at the world mainly with his ayin tova.
Bilaam, by contrast, searched for Bnei Yisrael’s weaknesses and negative traits. The Gemara in Brachot 7a comments that Bilaam knew the precise second of the day when Hashem’s anger is aroused (“ki rega b’apo”). Bilaam had a knack for prosecution; finding fault in people and incriminating them. He thought he could make Hashem focus on all Bnei Yisrael’s negative episodes on their journey from Egypt, and “convince” Hashem to allow them to be destroyed.
Bilaam closed or didn’t have the “eye” that saw the goodness in people, and looked only with the “eye” that found fault.
Hashem steps in and reverses Bilaam’s tendency, and instead Bilaam ends up give blessings to Bnei Yisrael instead of the curses for which he was hired. In introducing his first blessing, Bilaam proclaims (23:8-9):
‘מָה אֶקֹּב לֹא קַבֹּה אֵ-ל וּמָה אֶזְעֹם לֹא זָעַם ה
כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב
“How can I curse whom G-od has not cursed, how can I doom when the Lord has not doomed?
For I see them from the top of cliffs, and from the hills I look out upon them…”
When we look at people “from the top of cliffs,” from afar, we have a much different perspective than from up close. Looking from up close means that we think we can pass judgment because we’ve accurately scrutinized their every move. In truth, only Hashem can do that, and that is His job alone. We can’t know where people are coming from, their background, motivations, why they do what they do, etc. Only Hashem is bochein klayos valeiv.
We we look from the top of cliffs, we are working to appreciate the admirable qualities of a person. I think that looking from afar – “from the hills” – involves 2 types of mindsets: One is about how we are to look at others — from afar, without harsh scrutinization. The second is how we are to regard our own limited abilities in evaluating others — realizing that no matter how we look at a person, it will always be from a limited perspective.
Looking with an ayin tova requires us to step back and assess our peers “from the hills,” and from this perspective we can more easily appreciate and admire their fine attributes.
Finally, Rashi (quoting the Medrash Tanchuma) on the above passuk says that Bilaam “looked” at Bnei Yisrael from their beginnings / from their roots, and saw their strength like the rocks and hills; the strength they received from the Avos and Imahos.
אני מסתכל בראשיתם ובתחלת שרשיהם, ואני רואה אותם מיוסדים וחזקים כצורים וגבעות הללו ע”י אבות ואמהות
Looking with two eyes gives you depth. Gives you perspective.
How we are supposed to look at acheinu kol Beis Yisrael? All as fellow descendants of the Avos and Imahos.
Perhaps one of the most talked about messages, in the wake of the horrible tragedy that befell klal Yisrael this past week, is the importance of achdus – unity when we fervently prayed and hoped together that our boys would return safely, and unity when we had to cry and comfort each other when our worst fears became reality; tens of thousands of people at the funeral of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal A”H, and millions of Jews from all different walks of life praying and mourning together.
Hopefully, this lesson from Bilaam, of all people – to look at others with a kind eye and look at one another as all part of the same rich lineage – is something that can resonate not only through this horrific tragedy but going forward, throughout our modern day journey which Hashem is unfolding before us.