What are the three qualities that characterize a Jew?
Table for Five: Chukat-Balak
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not curse the people, for they are blessed.”
– Num. 22:12
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
Bilaam opened his mouth to curse, but God placed different words in his mouth; a blessing escaped his lips! Unsuccessful, he sought a new place from which to curse. Our sages teach “He who establishes a set place for his prayers will be assisted by the God of Abraham.” When Abraham prayed for Sodom, and it was nevertheless destroyed, “Abraham awoke the next morning and stood [in prayer] where he’d previously stood.”
There was a fundamental difference between Abraham’s approach to rejection and the approach of Bilaam. When Bilaam was unsuccessful cursing Jews, it never occurred to him that he was the problem. His diagnosis was simple – the place was bad! So he changed places. Abraham always took responsibility; fighting lonely battles against vicious dictators and polytheistic cults; he understood the proper way to address fruitless endeavor. Looking inward. Returning to the same place – and altering his methods. We can always spend our time wishing that things were different, magically wishing things away, like Bilaam. That’s a cursed life. The blessed life sees challenge after challenge, “Abraham was tested ten times… demonstrating how much Hashem loved him.” Seeing things along your path as challenges built just for you is the path that Abraham forged for us.
Responding to challenge like Abraham is to avoid blaming situations, offices, schools or spouses. Forget changing places; change yourself. The sorcerer who blames others for the failure of his spells will in the grand scheme of things fool no one more than himself.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-faith Chaplain, Spiritual Care Guide, Kaiser Panorama City
Our sages ponder why Bil’am’s actions are carefully circumscribed by God. “Why need God say, ‘do not go’ in addition to ‘do not curse?’ And “why does God emphasize that the people are blessed?” Torah wastes not a word. It surely embodies masterful efficiency of language, saying so much when it appears to say so little.
Midrash Tanhuma (500-800 CE) suggests “dear reader there’s more to this conversation than meets the eye” by hypothesizing our verse as a schmooze between Bil’am and The Divine. To God’s exhortation “do not go,” Tanhuma imagines Bil’am responding, “then I’ll curse the people from where I sit.” To God’s appeal, “don’t curse the people,” Tanhuma reckons Bil’am’s response, “if so, then let me bless them.” This in turn addresses why God says, “for they are blessed,” which is to say, “eh, don’t bother, because I’ve already blessed this people.”
Why does Balak hire an augur to curse this nation? Because he and the rest of the Near East fear the People Israel’s durable, historical bond with God. Though Israel’s dubious behaviors in the wilderness fleeing Egyptian tyranny may not always merit this protection, it is nonetheless assured by the ancient covenant with Abraham; God says, “And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and through thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ And so dear reader, imagine that Bil’am perceives Israel as the vessel through which he too might receive blessing.
Rabbi Yoni Dahlen, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Southfield Michigan
In the age of social media and trending hashtags, there seems to be a consensus that to be #blessed, is to be grateful for different elements of our lives. And just to be fair here, I don’t mean solely in a materialistic or superficial way. Often, to be #blessed is to be surrounded by family and friends, to take the time for sunsets, hikes, and a glass of wine; it’s to recognize the gifts of every day, every moment.
But the Torah has a different idea of what it means to be blessed – one that I think we should consider adopting. Not because our modern understanding of being blessed is so bad, but because it just doesn’t have the same spark, the same fire that that biblical blessing contains. Because in the Torah, to be blessed is to have a purpose, to be gifted with a mission of the utmost importance, to fulfill a promise or an expectation of the Divine.
That theological shift from gratitude to destiny might seem subtle, but it’s very relevant to who we are as individuals and who we are as a society. At its very core, it is egalitarian, unifying, healing. We all have purpose. We all have the ability to bring holiness into this world. Each and every one of us is blessed.
But we have to see it. We have to acknowledge it. Otherwise we waste this incredible potential given to us. And to throw away that gift is, well… a curse.
Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, BCC/Clergy and Chaplain/Congregation Netivot Shalom
Ibn Ezra explains: Bilaam will not be able to curse B’nai Yisrael because God has already blessed them. Which leads to the question, once we are blessed, is that blessing eternal? Stated differently, if God has blessed us, are we impervious to all curses and suffering?
This does not seem to fit with our history or reality. From Avraham onward, we receive blessings, but they are not to the exclusion of loss, suffering, and even curses. So how do we make sense of the Divine protection depicted in our verse? Perhaps the curses God protects us from are existential–a sort of spiritual dooming as Balak intended– not regular human suffering.
Alternatively, it could be that being a blessed people is not about protection from physical suffering but about perspective and resilience. In this way, Ibn Ezra’s interpretation could mean Bilaam will not be able to curse B’nai Yisrael because God has blessed them to be people who are resilient. When they suffer, they do not define themselves by their suffering. They have hope. They choose to not allow the pain and woes of this world to shape their present and future.
We know our verse is not the Messianic end of the Torah. And because of its placement in this context of facing external threats, it serves as an expression of love and protection from God from our parsha to today.
Let’s ask ourselves how we are feeling blessed today and how we want to extend that blessing to others.
Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, Parsha Teacher
When Hashem tells Bilaam matter-of-factly, “Don’t even bless them because they are already blessed,” what is the source of this blessing?
“We have natural strengths that we inherit as the fortunate children and grandchildren of the avos [patriarchs] and imahos [matriarchs], said Rabbi Avrohom Zajac, the rabbi of Chabad SOLA. We are maniimin [believers] because we are b’nai manimin [children of believers.]”
When the Talmud tells us that three qualities characterize a Jew: merciful, kind, and humble/modest, the Maharsha tells us that while Jews inherited their mercy and chesed from the avos and imahos, the blessings of humility and modesty only came to us after we received the Torah, says Rabbi Mendel Zajac.
Bilaam, who hated the Jews even more than Balak did, noted Jews’ strength, power, and longevity, but the blessing that we include in our morning alludes to our family lives, which Rabbanit Yemima Mizrahi interprets as an expression of the love, warmth, affirmation, acceptance, and hospitality that should characterize Jewish homes.
Rashi says that Bilaam remarked on the goodness of Jews’ tents after noticing that their doorways did not face one another because Jews respect each other’s privacy.
The opening of the Jews’ tents also symbolize how we strive to use our mouths, the Maggid of Mezeritch tells us.
While tents that face each other directly could represent conflict and aggression, Jews’ staggered tents reveal how Torah scholars gather, not G-d forbid, to argue with each other or to outdo each other, but to humbly increase their understanding.
Image: The Prophet Balaam and the Angel by J. Linnell, 1859
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