Balak, this week's Torah portion, is a curious yet charming, humorous yet instructive, tale of blessing and curse.
King Balak of Moab witnessed the growing power of ancient Israel as it surprisingly defeated the Amorites, who had denied the Israelites' request to pass through their land unharmed and then attacked them. Fearful that he would meet the same fate as the Amorites, Balak engaged the services of Balaam, a local sorcerer, to place a curse on Israel in order to eliminate the Israelite threat. Although Balaam understood that it would be improper to curse God's chosen people, he nevertheless was enticed by Balak's promises of rich rewards.
Balaam set out to accomplish this dastardly deed only to encounter an invisible angel with a drawn sword blocking his path. While Balaam was blind to the sight of the angel, his donkey was not. In spite of repeated beatings, the donkey refused to continue the journey. The anthropomorphized ass sarcastically engaged Balaam in scornful conversation, telling Balaam that his mission to curse the Israelites was not only doomed but would have the opposite effect. Thus Balaam, intending to curse the Israelites, instead advanced toward them with a blessing. When he viewed their encampment, this pagan soothsayer uttered the majestic words that have become a central feature of Jewish liturgy: "Mah tov-ou, oh-ha-leh-cha Ya-a-kov, mish-ka-not-te-cha Yis-ra-el." "How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).
Balak kept pressing Balaam to curse the Israelites only to find that Balaam blessed them on three separate occasions. He finally discovered that his continuing pressure of Balaam turned Balaam's curse on himself; the story concluded with Balaam's prediction of the destruction of Balak and his people.
Although rabbis of later generations were uncomfortable with the notion of curses, it is clear that in the mind of the biblical author, such actions were to be treated with utmost seriousness. The formidable nature of this type of malediction is recorded in the Torah portion, Nitzavim, read for Yom Kippur. These stirring words reveal the power that curses were believed to have held: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord your God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them" (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Thus, just as a blessing was associated with life and prosperity, so too, a curse was linked with death and destruction.
In addition to the Balaam saga, only a few other recorded instances of curses having their intended power are recorded. The prophet Elisha cursed a group of children who mocked him. According to the text (II Kings 2:23-24) the devastating result of his pronouncement was the death of 42 children who were torn apart by two bears. The book of Numbers (5:11-29) recorded that words of a curse were scraped from a scroll into bitter water, which was then consumed by a woman accused of adultery in order to establish her innocence or guilt in what was considered a capital crime.
While there is scant record of the application of curses, there are abundant examples of blessings and their fulfillment. When Abraham is told to leave his homeland, his charge to "go forth" ended with the words, "And you shall be a blessing./ I will bless those who bless you/ And curse him that curses you;/ And all the families of the earth/ Shall bless themselves by you" (Genesis 12:2-3).
Today we are ever mindful of the need to find blessings in our lives and in the lives of those we come into contact with. When a deceased individual is remembered or recalled by name, Jewish tradition suggests that the title, "zichrono/zichrona l'vracha" (May he/she be remembered for a blessing) be added to that person's name. Thus, Abraham's challenge, "And you shall be a blessing," is the struggle we should all treat seriously as we hope to make our lives be remembered.
On this Shabbat when we consider how Balaam's curses intended for Israel were transformed into blessings, we, too, have an opportunity to appreciate how we can turn our personal adversities and situations that seem like curses into blessings.