By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel
When I was in first grade, we were lining up to go back inside after recess and a kid next to me asked me if I was pregnant. I don’t think I even knew exactly how a person became pregnant at that point, but I knew that I wasn’t pregnant. And I knew that he was referring to my belly. For whatever reason, I have always been fairly thin but have had a little bit of a belly that, yes, I suppose could make me look like I’m a few months pregnant.
I became very self-conscious about my belly after that first-grade comment but I don’t think I mentioned it to any friends or family for years. I just let it stew in me. I’m sure that my classmate didn’t mean anything malicious by it, but the question was seared into my memory.
Fast forward 25 years. I’m now actually old enough that I could be pregnant. I’m not, though. I’m not even in a relationship. Though those two things don’t necessarily have to go together, they are related in my mind. Over the course of a year or two, three different co-workers of mine in a hospital stop me in the hallway, somewhat excitedly, to ask me if I’m pregnant. NO. I’m not. I try to play it down as if it doesn’t affect me, but it does. I think more consciously about the outfits that I wear. Maybe the shirt was just too fitted. Maybe I should work out more. It’s not about working out – I try to remind myself – I’ve run several half marathons and am in good shape.
It’s just how I look. Each and every one of us have parts of our body that we love and parts that we wish we could swap. I love my shoulders and my arms. My legs are toned; a friend saw me a few weeks ago and commented on how great I look. And honestly, most of the time, my belly doesn’t bother me.
Until someone says something. I don’t just feel like I’m in first grade again. There’s another piece now. They aren’t saying that I’m fat. They are actually happy for me, trying to wish me positive thoughts on a pregnancy that isn’t there. It reminds me that I want to have a family and I am not there yet. It reminds me that I’m not getting any younger and that the biological clock is ticking somewhere out there. They are trying to bring me joy and instead they end up bursting open my insecurities, both about my body and now about my relationship status and yearning for a pregnancy of my own one day. The intended blessing feels like a curse.
Today, however, the same interaction became a blessing. The words that I had come to feel as painful transformed themselves into something empowering. Maybe even holy. I just finished a run and was meeting some of the others in the running group. A woman introduces herself to me and we start talking; friendly and casual enough. Then it happens, totally unexpectedly. “Is there a child in there?,” she asks, as she motions toward me. Then, for the first time, I really truly brushed it off. I said, “Oh…no, that’s just the way I am.” She paused, maybe apologized – I’m really not sure – and then asked if I wanted to get drinks with her and some of the other girls.
I realized tonight that I am finally confident in who I am and how I look. Maybe when I finish training for this race, I’ll have a slimmer torso. Maybe not. Who cares? My ability to slough off this vulnerability that I have been carrying for so long is something powerful. And that unexpected blessing is rooted deep within our Jewish narrative and within this week’s Torah reading.
By the time we reach parashat Balak, the Israelites have become quite numerous as they continue to journey through the wilderness. Balak, the king of a neighboring nation, feels threatened by their size and asks Bilaam, a diviner, to curse the Israelite people on his behalf.
Bilaam hears God that night, who tells him that he cannot curse the Israelites, as they are already blessed by the blessings that they inherited from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Balak doesn’t settle for no; after the second request, God allows Bilaam to go with Balak’s people to the Israelites under then condition that Bilaam must follow God’s commands when he gets there.
Twice, Balak asks him to curse the Israelites but his words are dictated by God to be words of blessing and praise. As Balak takes Bilaam to the third vantage point to look upon the Israelites and curse them, he actually blesses them with words of his own. In the first two instances, God tell Bilaam to “speak thus” and Bilaam parrots back God’s words . This third time, though, he isn’t prompted directly. Instead, God’s spirit, ruach Elokim, is upon Bilaam and he articulates the words on his own. In those words, he notes that his eyes are uncovered. Now that they are uncovered, he can see God more clearly and he can see his role and own self more clearly. He opens this speech and the subsequent one announcing himself:
“Word of Bilaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled” (Numbers 24: 3-4)
He is taking ownership of the words. When the phrase “God uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” occurs a bit earlier (Numbers 22:31), the 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra explains that it may mean that Bilaam gains an extra ability to see. Just as his eyes were opened, leading him to claim his role, I was able to see in a new way tonight. I could now see my exact same body with different eyes.
After years of people asking if I was pregnant and jabbing at my insecurities, I too was able to stop the curse and see the blessing that God had placed in front of me. I am happy and healthy and have a body that does everything that it should. For all the hours that I have looked at myself in the mirror, perhaps my eyes weren’t fully uncovered until today, when I was able to truly see myself, whole and wholly intact. No one can take that away.