This week we will be reading from parashat Balak. It as a fascinating tale that scholars are still struggling with to this day. As the Plaut Commentary states, “The tale of Balaam is one of those intriguing passages of the Torah that appear simple and straightforward on the surface yet are complex when studied in detail. In brief, a pagan soothsayer is engaged by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites in order to impede their further progress. Balaam agrees, but God thwarts the design and instead causes him to bless Israel” (New Plaut Torah Commentary pg. 1047).
Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites four separate times and is unsuccessful in all four attempts. Each time the curses end up being blessings. The most well-known comes to us from Numberes 24:5: “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, how beautiful are your tents O Jacob.” This passage is part of our opening liturgy recited every morning when entering into the synagogue.
In the ancient world, there was a very strong belief in the power of curses. This tradition followed us through the middle ages with concepts like the ‘evil-eye.’ Even to this day, we speak of curses on occasion as if someone seems to have a black cloud following them.
But what our Torah portion is doing is something really profound. It is taking the notion of curses and flipping it on its head. It is reminding us that curses can become blessings. What happens to us is less important than how we respond.
Judaism rejects the notion of moving passively through life and letting events just wash over us. Instead it takes a much more activist view. If we wish to make a change in ourselves or in the world, we can and should be the agents of change.
We have taken this attempt at cursing the Israelites and made it into the very beginning of a worship experience. Talk about a radical notion. We have taken the words of those who would seek our destruction and made them into the beginning of a spiritual and religious journey. By reciting these words, we are reminding ourselves to not let the vagaries of life get in the way of living.
On Shabbat Balak, we are thusly empowered to recite the words of Balaam and live them, so that our beautiful tents may become sacred spaces to celebrate the Divine Presence and that they can be a reminder that the power to change curses into blessings is in our hands.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff