Torah Talk on Balak 5779
Blessings from Curses
This week we read the Torah portion of Balak in the Book of Numbers, which includes some of the best words an outsider ever delivered about our people. In the portion, one of just two in the entire Torah named after a non-Jew, 40 years of wandering have passed and the Israelites have finally arrived on the borders of the land of Canaan. They are about to move in and they seem unstoppable to their opponents. Balak, King of Moab, comes up with a novel plan: he will hire Balaam, a pagan sorcerer, to curse the Israelites, which will destroy their chances of defeating his own army and entering his land.
Only the scheme doesn’t work. Balaam may be a polytheistic prophet but he is also an honest man who conveys only what God permits him to say. After consulting the Almighty, Balaam agrees to do the deed, but only if God allows him to do so. And so we are given the intriguing spectacle of Balaam the sorcerer three times trying to curse the people of Israel, only to find that the words that come out of his mouth are not curses but blessings. The last of these orations is a text that has become the prayer that we use whenever we enter a synagogue: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov—how good are your tents, Jacob, your homes Israel…
Somehow the best-laid plans of Israel’s enemies go awry, transformed by the hand of God. Without being deterministic, we know that in recent decades many nations and organizations have planned the destruction of our people, and of our country, Israel. Although their efforts have injured us, we ultimately have triumphed.
Perhaps more importantly, the personal message of this portion of Balak is a subtle one. Usually in life we intend to bring blessing, but we often bring tzoris, trouble, instead. But if we rely on God’s help and inspiration we will find that even our less-than-nobly motivated actions can bring blessing in the place of curses.
It is all a matter of remembering the true source for inspiration and creativity—and therefore, of blessing—which is God.