The story of Balak and Balaam that we read this week is a unique moment in Torah. Rather than focusing on the story of the Israelites, the Torah switches perspectives to show us the reactions of people with whom the Israelites interact and gives us some insight into their motivations and character. Why? These people are not going to become Israelites or ally themselves with them. By drawing a picture of this very different group that opposes the Israelite project, the Torah is teaching us that understanding those who oppose us–rather than seeing them as caricatures or monsters–is a necessary part of managing and dealing with conflict.
In the political life of this country–as we have seen this week and will see next week right here in Philadelphia–we too often hear the opposition described as just such a caricature or a monster. Speakers insist that those who support a different party or candidate do not simply disagree; they are “crazy,” “idiots,” or both. Candidates do not simply hold different positions on issues; they are “evil” or “liars.” Such an approach provides much heat but little light. It is the opposite of the approach of Torah, which asks us to seek to understand those different from us, to see them as human beings whose views have real motivations and explanations, even while we may still disagree and oppose each other. Reaching for understanding does not mean we have to agree with each other, as even a cursory look at traditional Jewish texts will make clear. But gaining insight into the thoughts of those with whom we disagree is crucial if we are to ever make progress in dealing with the difficult issues that our lives together continue to throw in our path. May we all make the effort to see the “enemy” as human and to disagree with respect. That is the true path to a better America.