15/16 July: Balak : Shabbat comes in 8:57 pm, ends 10:12 pm
Parashat Balak – Curses into Blessings
In this week’s parashah, we meet a most unusual prophet. Bilaam is the only prophet of the Torah whose story is not deeply connected with the line of Abraham. Bilaam’s fame extends beyond even the Torah; he is remembered in the Deir Alla Inscription (dated to 880-770 BCE). According to the medieval commentator Abravanel, Bilaam’s incredible fame might help us understand the Divine’s decision to switch Bilaam’s curses for blessings.
In our story, when the foreign king Balak asks the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites, Bilaam opens his mouth and out fall blessings. This wonderful story gives us the prayer that is often said upon entering into a synagogue (Numbers 24:5): Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisra’el – how goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel. However, the motivations of the Almighty have presented an issue for our commentators: surely God could simply ignore Bilaam’s attempts, and Bilaam’s curses would be empty and ineffective. Are we to believe that Bilaam has the power to curse the Israelites independently of the Almighty? Why does God not simply ignore Bilaam?
It is precisely Bilaam’s renown as a prophet that provides Abravanel’s understanding of the divine motivation for interrupting Bilaam’s efforts: the psychological effect of a curse. Bilaam’s power does not rest solely with the Divine, because there is significant psychological power in words. Bilaam’s words cannot remain with him on the mountaintop, as the words of the famous travel far and wide. Had the story gone differently, according to Abravanel, Bilaam’s curse would have empowered our enemies to attack. It stands to reason, too, that had the Israelites heard of the curse, they might have been emotionally weakened in a time that called for great courage.
We too live in a time that calls for great courage. The story of Bilaam is one of Divine blessings and prophetic curses, but it is also a story of the human power afforded to us all: the power to influence one another. May we all use that great power to bring blessings into the world.