In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the foreign prophet Balaam is hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites. Balak fears that the Israelites will encroach on his territory, and he pays Balaam a huge sum in order to bring God’s curses down on his foes. Although Balaam accepts the money, whenever he casts his gaze on the Israelite camp and prepares to curse them only words of blessing flow from his lips, most famously: “Mah tovu ohalekha, Yaakov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Numbers 24:5).
Our tradition contrasts Balaam and Abraham, in order to offer a central teaching about living well. The followers of Abraham are said to possess an עַיִן טוֹבָה ayin tova – literally a “good eye,” while the followers of Balaam are said to possess an עַיִן רָעָה ayin ra’ah – literally a “bad eye” or “evil eye.” (Pirkei Avot 5:19) However, what our tradition means by ayin tova and ayin ra’ah is actually “an eye for the good” and “an eye for the bad.” That is, a disciple of Abraham keeps an eye out for the good in people and in life, whereas a disciple of Balaam looks to elicit the bad, the curse, in every person and situation.
Jewish wisdom considers having an ayin tovah to be a great and crucial mitzvah, because if we do not look for the good in the world, that good remains latent. Goodness cannot manifest in human affairs without our active willingness to seek it and to manifest it. The great Hasidic teacher the Sefat Emet* employs a beautiful metaphor for this activity. He says that there is a חוּט שֶׁל חֶסֶד khut shel khesed – a “thread of grace” that is always present in the world. The Sefat Emet writes, “This world is indeed filled with harshness, but still a thread of grace is found each day. The righteous seek out this thread of grace, every day and in every place.”
The Sefat Emet continues: “This is a battle that goes on every day, including within every individual, and it is our task to arouse the quality of grace every day. For those who focus their energies on ayin ra’ah also increase anger and the will to do evil in the world every day, and those forces then strengthen.”
Our world today is indeed filled with harshness, and the divisive forces unleashed by those who, like Balaam, choose to see the world with an ayin ra’ah continue to mount. Be a disciple of Abraham and continue to see the good in others, in yourself, and in the world. It will strengthen you and those around you. It is the path of hope, of righteousness, of aliveness, and of joy. And it’s a mitzvah!