“Then G-d uncovered Balaam’s eyes….”: Confronting and Moving Past the Failure to See Race and Privilege

A version of the following post was originally delivered as a sermon at Adas Israel Congregation and then at First Congregational United Church of Christ.


The “Balak” passage of scripture from the Book of Numbers is an exceptionally good story.

The Passage

King Balak of the Moabites, fearing the approach of the Israelites as they make their way towards the Promised Land, sends his messengers to ask the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. G-d tells Balaam not to go to King Balak, for he is not to curse the Israelites, a blessed people. King Balak sweetens the bait and sends his messengers back to Balaam, promising riches in return for Balaam cursing the Israelites. This time, G-d allows Balaam to go meet with King Balak so long as he follows G-d’s orders.

But just after Balaam mounts his donkey for his journey, the donkey seems to go totally berserk. She swerves, she traps Balaam’s foot against a wall, and finally lays down in protest under Balaam. At each of these turns, Balaam is furious with his donkey and beats her.

The donkey then talks to Balaam, asking what she has done to deserve such beatings. Balaam responds that she has “made a mockery” of him and adds that he would have killed her if he had a sword. The donkey reminds Balaam that she has always served him faithfully. When she asks him whether she has ever mocked him in the past, Balaam has no choice but to answer “no.”

Then, “G-d uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of G-d standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand.

G-d’s angel chastises Balaam for beating his donkey. “If she had not shied away from me,” the angel explains, “you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.” Professing himself an “adversary,” G-d’s angel proclaims Balaam’s “errand” “obnoxious.”

Balaam admits: “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way.” He then offers to turn back. The angel tells him to go forward, but warns that Balaam must say nothing except what G-d tells him. To King Balak’s dismay, Balaam ends up blessing instead of cursing the Israelites three times.

Lessons from the Passage

It’s a pretty juicy passage of scripture, right? Who could miss the talking donkey? Her words mark one of only two times in the five books of Moses where an animal speaks in human language. Who knows the other time? (It was the talking Serpent in the Garden of Eden.)

But what leapt off the page for me were the words “G-d uncovered Balaam’s eyes.”

Let me explain. I read this passage still reeling from having my own eyes opened yet again to the brutal treatment of African Americans in our country. I read it just after watching the graphic videos of the the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul within a day of each other, followed by the racially-motivated killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. I read this passage feeling the emotional weight of my own reawakening to America’s deeply embedded and persistent racism problem. I read this passage searching, like I imagine many of you are, for an answer.

And while I know the answer is not straightforward or simple, I also know that we cannot interrupt, dismantle or undo a problem until we become aware of it.

It is with this lens, in search of lessons about moments where we fail to see race and privilege, and how to recover from them, that I read the Balak passage of scripture.

Lesson #1: If a prophet with a special line to G-d has dangerous gaps in his perception, then we all must have them.

What specifically does Balaam fail to perceive?

First, Balaam either misses or chooses to ignore G-d’s true feelings about his decision to meet with King Balak. Sure, after saying a clear “no” the first time, G-d gives Balaam token permission to go meet with King Balak the second time he asks. Balaam, however, seems unaware or intentionally disregards that his journey is nonetheless “obnoxious” to G-d.

Balaam also does not see what his donkey can — the angel of G-d, sword in hand, blocking his path.

Balaam’s lack of awareness results in his beating his loyal donkey three unwarranted times, Balaam’s donkey and G-d’s angel both mocking Balaam, and Balaam’s own close call with death.

If we all have such dangerous lapses in our perception, I asked myself, what are mine? I have spent much of this past year beginning to awaken to my own lack of awareness around race and privilege.

My journey began last summer, when I was serving as Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I was asked to give the Yom Kippur sermon at George Washington University’s Hillel service about whatever topic I wanted. I chose to explore white privilege. Why? Because Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is an uncomfortable holiday where you fast all day and think about what you did wrong in the past year, so that you can atone. I kept noticing that the comfort I had around the notion of racial justice dissolved into extreme *discomfort* when I thought about “white privilege.” But I did not understand why. Yom Kippur felt like the perfect holiday to explore it.

In preparation for that sermon, I began to study white privilege at the same time as I reflected on my own feelings about it. As a piece of my exploration, I posted a message on Facebook addressed specifically to my “white Facebook friends” and asked them to share their thoughts with me on white privilege. One of my friends in particular hit the nail on the head.

She wrote:

“White privilege means that every single thing in my life is easier. It’s easier for me to get jobs, it’s easier for me to get healthcare/car insurance/buy a home/catch a cab, it’s easier for me to raise my children because they don’t have targets on their backs …, it’s easier to shop in stores because no one thinks I’m going to shoplift, it’s easier to be an activist because I know that even if there is police brutality or arrests at a protest, I am unlikely to … face serious consequences. … No one is ever going to question me for driving a nice car, walking into a nice house or being in a wealthy neighborhood. All of this is mine not because of anything I did or am, but because of white privilege.”

I learned that white privilege is the privilege of unearned preference and power based on my skin color.

I also learned that white privilege — and its flipside, racism — — thrive on staying out of the light.

White privilege is the privilege of invisible preference. I can buy “skin” color band-aids or “nude” colored shoes and not even notice that my skin color is used as the standard.

White privilege is the privilege of being the “norm,” the baseline. I have a skin color, and yet other people are “people of color.”

It enables me, as a white person, to go through most of my life easily avoiding ever having to think about race.

One black friend of mine, by contrast, told me:

“If my white friends knew just how often I think about race every day, they would think I was crazy.”

As I prepared for my sermon, I learned that my white privilege renders me largely unconscious of the racial dynamics that exist within myself and all around me.

Here is a recent example that is hard to admit. Every time there are reports of a police officer unfairly killing a black man, at the same time as I am horrified, I find myself also questioning whether the situation could possibly have merited the action. Most of my African-American friends, by contrast, immediately condemn the police.

What is the reality? As President Obama said recently in Dallas, “the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally.” But it is also true, as The Washington Post noted in a new analysis published a few weeks ago, that black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers. A Propublica recent study of FBI data puts black teenagers at a 21 times greater risk than white teenagers of being shot dead by police officers.

Once again, I wonder: Could these be the numbers because black Americans are somehow acting more dangerously? But then I watch the graphic video of the two Baton Rouge police officers pinning Alton Sterling down, head forcibly held sideways on the cement, and shooting him point blank in the chest multiple times, no sign of Sterling’s alleged gun in sight. I take in the Chicago police dash cam video of teenager Laquan McDonald, who allegedly had a knife and was breaking into cars, being shot 16 times as he walked directly and quickly away from the police. And I register that these police killings are happening when by contrast, white Dylann Roof, after having just murdered nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, is simply apprehended by the police, who then bring him Burger King when he complains of being hungry, just hours after the shooting.

I become aware of the limitations of my own perspective when I start hearing black men of all backgrounds and ages speak out about their experience with police. A young Jewish black man pursuing a joint degree at Columbia Law and Business School tells me that he has been in the back seat of cop cars more times than he can count on both hands. The sole black Republican Senator in Congress, Tim Scott, speaks on the Senate floor of the seven times in one year when he was an elected official that he was stopped by law-enforcement officers, sometimes for no other reason than that he was “driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood.”

“Today,” Senator Scott concludes, “I simply ask you this. Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.”

Because of my white privilege, I, like Balaam, have gaping holes in my perception. Also like Balaam, I need help uncovering my eyes.

Lesson #2: We need to be challenged and sometimes even to feel stupider than an ass (pardon the double entendre) in order to be able to wake up to our ignorance and misperceptions.

What should we make of the fact that Balaam’s talking donkey marks one of only two times in the Hebrew Bible where an animal speaks a human language? The donkey’s mocking words must be important.

What does she say? She challenges Balaam’s perspective.

She asks him what she has done wrong to deserve his beating and then forces him to admit that she has never been unloyal. I imagine something like this going through Balaam’s mind: It is true that my donkey has never mocked me before, so there must be some other reality operating than that which I am aware of to explain her behavior.

The donkey’s mocking words must help prepare Balaam for the very next moment, when G-d uncovers his eyes and he becomes aware of the truth.

As a white person working on race issues, I too have grown from the many moments when I have been challenged even to the point where I have felt embarrassed. A few years ago, an African American taxi driver was taking me to the airport for a work trip. We started to chat about the history of black people in America, and that really got him going. He was quite knowledgeable about the topic, and had a lot to share. Desperate to pause the conversation because I had to respond to a few work emails, I said to him: “Sir, you are so articulate and knowledgeable, but I really need to answer some work emails now.” I will never forget the sting of his accusation that I was the millionth white person who, by noting his articulateness and deep knowledge, clearly assumed that black people lacked these attributes. I thought about it and admitted to myself that I likely would not have chosen those words had the cab driver been white. I have never made that mistake again.

Similar to Balaam, sometimes white people need to be challenged about race, and even to feel like an ass, in order to be open to seeing the reality around racial dynamics in America.

Lesson #3: If, like Balaam, we can acknowledge our lack of awareness and demonstrate some humility, we too can get back on the right path.

We know what Balaam did wrong. But can we learn from what he did right?

After being rebuked, Balaam twice owns his mistake rather than protest in any way. First, when his donkey mocks him for his behavior, he admits to her that she has never before betrayed him. Next, when G-d’s angel chastises him, Balaam humbly tells G-d’s angel: “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way.” Then Balaam quite literally offers to turn his behavior around — he offers to turn back.

For this, he gets another chance. The angel tells Balaam to continue his journey, but admonishes that he must say nothing except what G-d tells him — Balaam’s version of staying on the moral path. Balaam ends up blessing instead of cursing the Israelites in three subsequent moments of the passage.

I would like to conclude by telling you what I would say if I could write Balaam a modern day letter.

Dear Balaam,

I think that your blessing the Israelites three times was a really cool thing to do. Even though, apparently, it was kind of the only thing you *could* do and still live, if you know what I mean.

Mostly, though, I think you are amazing for the way you reacted to being called out. It must have been hard enough to admit to your talking donkey that she was right. But then you had a confrontation with G-d’s enraged angel. That is really rough.

I admire you, Balaam, because you owned it. You owned that you erred, and that shows that you have real courage. I can only imagine what an ass you felt like.You owned it and you immediately offered to turn it around. And you were sincere. It’s impressive. I guess that’s what got you another chance, huh?

We need a second chance too right now, Balaam. I am so worried about our country. Black and brown people continue to suffer and die because of our country’s racism problem. I know we have this problem, but it is so deeply embedded and hidden to me and my white brothers and sisters, that we still struggle to see it. That’s our challenge, Balaam. I know you of all people get it.

I am going to keep working as hard as I can on uncovering my eyes, but do me a little favor. Please put in a good word with you know who, because I — and we — could use a boost to help us awaken to the privilege and racism in America. You got help, so I know it’s possible.

In exchange, I promise to emulate you — to own my errors and turn it around. I guess struggling to overcome our misperceptions and ignorance is part of being human — or even super human or whatever you are.

I wish that you could bless America right now three times, because we really need it. #stopthekillings #blacklivesmatter

Yours in spirit,

Rachel

Please join me in saying Amen.