One of the notorious character traits of Bilaam was his arrogance (see Avot 5:19). Throughout this week’s parshah his self-aggrandizement is often repeated. Though one may have expected that a person of his caliber who was imbued with prophetic powers should be humble and meek; nevertheless, he lacked Torah to refine his character.

But there is a problem with one of the descriptions he offers about himself: After his first two failed attempts to satisfy Balak by casting a curse on the Jewish people , he attempted a third time to please Balak. The Torah tells us, “He launched into his parable and said: ‘The words of Bilaam, son of Be’or, the words of the man shetum ha’ayin — with the open eye’” (24:4).

Rashi offers two explanations for “shetum ha’ayin.” One is that his eye was punctured and taken out of its socket, i.e., Bilaam’s eye was blinded. According to another explanation it means “open-eyed,” but since he says shetum ha’ayim — an open eye — in the singular and not shetum ainayim — with open eyes — in plural, we learn that he was blind in one of his eyes and had very good vision on the other. The common denominator of the two explanations is that he was a blind person.

Superficially, this is enigmatic. Why did Bilaam pride himself with his blindness? Even according to Rashi’s second explanation that shetum ha’ayim means “open eyed,” still he alluded also that he was blind in one eye? Usually, people do not like to advertise their physical defects. If one, G‑d forbid, has a defect, he looks for ways to conceal it. In the event of blindness one installs a prosthetic eye which looks very natural and most people will not detect the difference.

(I once read a terrifying Holocaust story. A vicious Nazi officer once wanted to shoot a Jewish child who was held in his mother’s arms. The mother’s pleas were to no avail. Finally the mother said. “I see a streak of mercy in your eye, please have mercy. The officer suddenly stopped and said to her “Could you tell me in which eye of mine you saw a streak of mercy?” The bewildered mother responded, “In your right eye.” “You may be right,” he retorted, “but it’s a glass eye.”)

To answer the question of why Bilaam was proud of his physical defect — his blindness — I will relate a story of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch dynasty, known as the Rebbe Rayatz. He was born on the 12th of Tammuz which falls out this week and is also the day of his miraculous redemption from imprisonment by the Russians for his activities in the propagation of Torah and Yiddishkeit, which the Russians desired to eradicate.

When the Rayatz was young he asked his father the Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom DovBer (1860-1920) the fifth Rebbe in the Lubavitch dynasty) the following question: “Why did Hashem create me with two eyes. One eye would be sufficient because when I close one eye, I can see just as well?”

His father explained that people have two eyes for a reason. There are certain things at which one should “look with the right eye” — i.e. love and concern — and there are things which one should “look with the left eye” — i.e. apathy and indifference. When one looks at a Jew, one should always look with the right eye and find his good qualities. The left eye is for worldly matters and things of minor importance. Sometimes one should even close it and not pursue materialistic desires.”

Balak was extremely disappointed with Bilaam. For instead of cursing the Jews, he was praising and blessing them. Bilaam comforted Balak and told him, “Do not fear, I am blind in one eye. My right eye has no vision, and thus I cannot see any good in the Jewish people.”

My dear Bar Mitzvah, hopefully the lesson that the father — the Rebbe Rashab — conveyed to his son will be your guide throughout your life to use your eyes properly and to distinguish and give priority to that which is important and essential. The Rebbe Rayatz was an illustrious oheiv Yisroel —lover of his fellow Jew — may you follow in his footsteps.