Friday, July 29, 2011

Scared half to death / Devarim

What happens if you’re scared half to death ---- twice?

Sam was certain there were dybbuks under his bed. He went to his rabbi, who told him to see a doctor. So Sam went to see his internist, who sent him to a psychiatrist, but nothing helped. Sam was absolutely certain there were dybbuks hiding under his bed. His fear began to overwhelm him entirely. Then one shabbat he came to shul totally calm. “You look great, Sam,” his rabbi said. “I feel great, Rabbi, and the dybbuks are gone from my life. One session with a therapist and they’re no longer under my bed.” “One session? How?” his rabbi asked. “The therapist told me to cut the legs off my bed.”

Fear is often disabling. Perhaps this explains much of our ancestors’ behavior in the Wilderness. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ more-or-less chronological summation of 40 years in the wilderness.

Moses might have organized it from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the Israelites’ experience. In which case, it might have begun like this: “We have spent 40 years see-sawing between love and fear. God has demonstrated unreserved love for us – bringing us out of bondage, parting the Reed Sea for us, giving us Torah, dispensing manna and quail in the Wilderness, furnishing a traveling well to accompany us, providing instructions to build a Tabernacle so that God could abide right here with us, guiding us through the Wilderness with a beacon of cloud and fire. You were horribly afraid when I left you to ascend Mt. Sinai; you demanded that Aaron make you an idol, a violation that will hang over us like a black cloud for generations to come. You ignored Joshua and Caleb and allowed fear to overtake you, consigning an entire generation to die out in the Wilderness. And how many times were you scared and wanted to turn tail and run back to Egypt.”

Aren’t God’s acts of love sufficient to inspire confidence in God and allay the fears of the Israelites? Yet so much of what the Israelites do, and fail to do, is due to fear. Love inspires us to engage in life. Fear can cause us to retreat: reasonable risks we don’t take, opportunities we forego, challenges we convince ourselves we can never meet – all impeded by fear. And in those moments of intense fear (or even terror) – becoming unemployed, awaiting the results of a crucially important medical test, receiving terrible news concerning a loved one, watching a child being wheeled into the operating room – we often retreat even further.

In this week’s parashah we read Moses’ first address to the Israelites, encamped on the border of Moab. They are told not once, but twice not to fear. First, concerning the Amorites: Have no dread or fear of them (Dt. 1:29). Then a second time concerning King Og of Bashan: Do not fear him… (Dt. 3:2). Twice, a terrified population is told, “Don’t be afraid.” …And don’t think of pink elephants either.

How is this supposed to help? It defies logic. As if that isn’t bizarre enough, God assures the Israelites: I have delivered [Og] and all his men and his country into your hands. How is that possible before the war is fought? And if winning is a given, why are the Israelites afraid in the first place? Beraishit Rabbah attempts to justify God’s assurance to the Israelites by telling us that Abraham modeled the kind of trust God wants the Israelites to place in God: When confronted by Og (the ancestor of the Canaanites), Abraham continued preparing matzah for Pesach; and when Og threatened to kill Isaac, Abraham proceeded with Isaac’s brit milah. The message here is: push on and trust that God protects those who do mitzvot.

I’m sure that works for some people, but by no means everyone. So let’s return to the Torah for insight.
Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the Lord your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you (n’sa’a’kha)…
N-sa-a’-kha – “I carried you.” It has happened before. Eleanor Roosevelt said:
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Each of us has experiences to draw on for strength, proof that having survived once with God’s help, we can do it again. We all have successes and untapped reserves of strength. But for some people, mining history to feel God’s strength in the midst of crisis is too abstract, too much to ask.

Perhaps n-sa-a’-kha can be understood in other ways. Torah has no vowels and the consonants of n'sa-a'-kha can be pointed various ways.

Here’s one: no-sei-kha – “I am (already) carrying you.” Loving and caring people help one to feel God’s presence and love in a moment of intense fear is enormously powerful. You can both be that reassuring presence and accept the ministrations of other – the eyes, ears, and hands of God – when you are gripped by fear.

Here’s one more: Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you.” The “we” is the community of love and support we have the power to create. It is love overpowering fear. Love integrates: it connects us with others and gives us meaning and purpose. Fear separates: it makes us feel isolated and alone. We’ve all seen it. Many of us have lived it.

And more: Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you” – couched in the future tense –points to hope. A vision of a better future (and in some cases, any future at all) alleviates fear. Aristotle said, “Hope is a waking dream.” But I think hope is much more. Samuel Smiles, a 19th century Scottish writer and reformer put it best, “Hope is the companion of power, and mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles.”

Ni-sa’-kha – “We will carry you” is God saying, no-sei-kha – “I am carrying you.” That is why God – who is molding Israel into a community through Torah, can tell Israel, n-sa-a’-kha – “I carried you.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, July 25, 2011

If it's Tuesday, this must be Dopkhah / Masei

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. The 9-country, 18-day whirlwind bus tour depicted in this 1969 film pales in comparison to Israel’s multi-stop, 40-year excursion through Sinai, led by their intrepid tour guide, Moses, following a route charted by God.

Here’s how Masei begins. Does anything here surprise you?
They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. It was on the morrow of the Passover offering that the Israelites started out defiantly, in plain view of all the Egyptians. The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord executed judgment on their gods. (Numbers 33:3-4)
The dizzying travelogue continues:
The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etam, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned about toward Pi-harhiroh, which faced Baal-zephon, and they encamped before Migdol. (Numbers 33:5-7)
And just to make your head spin, here’s the itinerary from there: Etam, Marah, Elim, wilderness of Sin, Dophkah, Alush, Rephidim, Kibrot-hattaavah, Hazerot, Ritmah, Rimon-perez, Libnah, Rissah, Kehelat, Mount Shepher, Haradah, Makhelot, Tahat, Terah; Mitkah, Hashmonah, Moserot, Bene-jaakan, Hor-haggidgad, Jotbat, Abronah, Ezion-geber, Kadesh, Mount Hor.

Are you still with me?

Rare comments are offered about a particular place, but they are short (e.g., there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees in Elim; at Rephidim they had no water to drink). This makes the comments concerning Rameses especially striking. The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord had executed judgment on their gods.

Why does Torah pause to tell us what the Egyptians – Israel’s enemies on the other side of the Reed Sea – are doing? I would suggest to you that Torah’s overall primary goal is to instill in us the twin values of justice and compassion. The world depends not only on the exercise of justice and compassion, but on establishing and maintaining the right balance between them. If we approach others with strict justice alone, we will be judgmental and punishing. If we approach people only through the attribute of compassion, we will tolerate abusive, cruel, and violent. It’s a delicate balance. Strict justice is dangerous, but so is unmitigated compassion.

Our Sages tell us that even God finds it difficult to maintain the right balance. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), the Rabbis envision God praying every day. They ask the very questions you would ask: To whom? God prays to God, of course. Next question?
What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rav: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Berakhot 7a)
In Masei, we find an example of the balance between compassion and justice:
The Egyptians meanwhile were burying those among them whom the Lord had struck down, every first-born – whereby the Lord executed judgment on their gods. (Numbers 33:4)
Torah wants us, even in our pain, to consider the suffering of our enemies. Torah is telling us: While you experience freedom, know that it came at great cost. The Egyptians are burying their dead. Imagine their pain and grief. Imagine all the families who have lost a loved one. Know that justice was served by God, but do not be callous and unfeeling.

The Bavli (Megillah 10b) tells us that when the waters of the Reed Sea closed in on the Egyptians, the Israelites sang a song of redemption that is preserved in our Torah (Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, Exodus15). The angels in heaven wished to join in Israel’s song of victory by singing “Halleluyah” but God rebuked them, saying: “How can you sing Halleluyah when My creatures are drowning?” Israel was allowed to celebrate in that moment, but the angels were not. In recording this midrash, the Sages teach us that we should do as the angels and consider with compassion the suffering of even our enemies.

It is not easy to feel compassion for one’s enemy on a battlefield but neither is it impossible. During the Vietnam War, the U. S. military used a powerful defoliant called “Agent Orange,” which contains large quantities of Dioxin. Dioxin is both a carcinogen (it causes cancer in those exposed) and teratogen (it causes birth defects in the offspring of those exposed). Somewhere between 2.5 and 4.8 million people were exposed to Agent Orange (mostly Vietnamese, but American soldiers as well) and the effects have been devastating. The damage to the ecosystem is likewise immense and continues to adversely affect the lives of those who live in the affected areas. The suffering caused by Agent Orange is inestimable. The U.S. government knew that Agent Orange contained high levels of Dioxin, and that Dioxin is a powerful carcinogen and teratogen. Yet from 1961 to 1971, the U.S. military sprayed more than 10% of Vietnam with this poison. Leaving aside for a moment the question of the legitimacy of the war in Southeast Asia, had the U.S. military exhibited compassion for the enemy – even as they pursued the war – they would not have used Agent Orange.

On a far smaller scale, how do we treat people we have decided are our “enemies.” Do we approach them with compassion, or see them only as obstacles in our lives, impediments to reaching our goals, irritants we would prefer to clear away? It is not easy to consider the perspective, feelings, and needs of someone we have deemed to be our enemy, yet Torah wants us to stretch ourselves in that direction. Our sense of justice – what we think they deserve – must be tempered by compassion, so that we see the full picture, and our justice is genuine justice, not merely revenge.

Who do you see as your enemy? How can you temper your sense of justice with compassion? The magic of this Torah teaching is that in our personal lives, it is sometimes the case that when we do this successfully, the “enemy” stops being the enemy. Still a problem perhaps, but problems can often be resolved.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Not intended to be a factual statement" / Parshat Mattot

This past April, Senator Jon Kyl declared on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.” In actuality, the correct figure is 3%. The following day, Sen. Kyl’s press secretary, Ryan Patmintra, issued the now-famous disclaimer that Sen. Kyl’s words were “not intended to be a factual statement.” Apparently, neither were Patmintra’s. (I’m not a mathematician but this sounds suspiciously like recursion. But let’s not go there; better to go here and enjoy Stephen Colbert’s take on it.)

When must our words be accurate, true, and sincere? Preferably always, but hey, we’re human and some occasions are more important that others. Parshat Mattot speaks about one of those occasions: vows.
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has come out of his mouth. (Numbers 30:3)
In a society in which business and contracts are made verbally, and very little is written down, words take on greater value. It is crucially important to be able to rely on what a person says because often that is all you have to go on.

The Torah also discusses women’s vows. (Warning: you’re not going to like this.) If a woman is a minor living in her father’s house, her vow is valid only if her father permits it. If she marries during the period covered by the vow, her husband can annul it if he disapproves. Similarly, any vow she makes while married. Widows and divorcees are the only women whose vows cannot be annulled by a man. (Numbers 30:4-17)

There is a discussion in the Talmud concerning when and how a person may be released from a vow made to God (not a promise made to another person). It helps us consider the value and meaning of our words. Mishnah Nedarim 9:1 reads as follows (NB: the numbers below are not in the text; I added them to facilitate following the commentary below):
  1. R. Eliezer says: They release [a vow] a person [from his vow] for the sake of the honor of his father and mother.
  2. But the Sages prohibit [releasing him from his vow for that reason].
  3. R. Tzaddok: Before they release him [from his vow] for the sake of his father and mother, let them release for him from it for the sake of the honor of the Omnipresent! If so, there are no vows.
  4. The Sages agree with R. Eliezer concerning a matter [about which the vow was made] between his father and his mother that they untie it for him for the sake of the honor of his father and mother.
1. What are appropriate grounds for releasing a person from his vow? R. Eliezer recognizes that there are occasions when a person makes a vow without thinking through the consequence, or in a fit of pique, or the situation changes such that the vow comes into conflict with kibud av v’em – honoring one’s father and mother. If one can honestly say, “My vow dishonors my parents and I didn’t realize this at the time I made the vow,” he can go before a bet din (court of three rabbis) and be released from his vow.

2. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, the Sages disagree. A vow is a vow, just as a promise is a promise.

3. R. Tzaddok then points out a flaw in R. Eliezer’s reasoning. Certainly if we are concerned about the honor of one’s parents, we must all the more so be concerned about the honor of God. It’s not difficult to argue that most any vow could be construed to dishonor God. A vow made in haste, or out of anger, or without due thought all dishonor God. If we open the door to the honor of parents, we certainly must open it to the honor of God, in which case it’s wide open and never shuts. What meaning or force will any vow have?

4. The Sages must now decide. They are in a quandary. On the one hand they want to uphold the integrity of vows and the power of words that stands behind them. Yet they recognize the legitimacy of R. Eliezer’s concern in the real world of our lives. In addition, R. Tzaddok makes an excellent point that must be considered. Therefore they amend their previous opinion: Vows will stand except in one narrow situation. If one makes a vow that concerns his parents directly and in so doing dishonors them, he may be released from that vow because the vow is specific and kibud av v’em (honoring one’s parents) takes clear precedence. However, all other vows stand.

The Sages recognize human foibles and errors, but they strongly believe that our words should have integrity because words are powerful. Our words must have integrity for us to have integrity.

Sen. Kyl used words foolishly and irresponsibly. His integrity rightly suffered as a result. This might give us all pause to consider how we use words, and whether we keep the promises we make and obligations we undertake, toward the end that we pause… before speaking.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Im gonna live forever" / Parshat Pinchas

My father z”l always told me he planned to live forever. Alas, he didn’t, but according to our Rabbis, a woman mentioned in this week’s parashah did.

Her name is Serach – a name few of us know – and she is mentioned in a census recorded in Numbers chapter 25. Most of us think a census makes boring reading – good only for sociologists and insomniacs. A census may be tedious, but it is not always boring, and often contains a fascinating detail – the lily among the thorns.

By way of background, and to set the scene, this week’s parashah provides a rationale for, and final tally of, a census taken while the Israelites are encamped in Shittim. We are told that as a result of the “incident at Baal Peor” with which last week’s parashah closes (Numbers 25:1-9) in which the Israelites engage in idolatrous behavior with the Moabites that God orders a census be taken for war. The culminating scene of that episode comes when an Israelite named Zimri copulates with a Midianite woman named Cozbi in the Mishkan (sanctuary). With a flash of zeal, Pinchas handily runs them both through with one thrust of his sword. Shockingly, Torah conveys God’s approval for Pinchas’ act of fanatical zealotry, which serves as expiation for the nation, thereby heading off another plague. But the Midianites must be avenged for Cozbi’s seduction of Zimri and indiscretion in the Mishkan. If you’re not a fan of violent group punishment, this is yet another disturbing episode in the Torah.

So what’s interesting about this census? There are three mentions of women. Why mention women in a census whose purpose is to count men of sufficient age to fight a war? Here are the three:
1. The daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 26:33)
2. Serach bat Asher (Numbers 26:46)
3. Yocheved, the wife of Amram, and her daughter Miriam (Numbers 26: 59)

We can explain the mention of the daughters of Zelophehad as foreshadowing what will come next: chapter 26 is devoted to the objection to the law of inheritance that Zelophehad’s daughters bring to Moses concerning which God recognizes the justice of their claim. We can explain the mention of Yocheved and Miriam because they are connected with the priestly line (emanating from Aaron) that is uniquely important and related to the upcoming holy day and festival calendar in chapter 28 that enumerates the offerings brought on each day by the sons of Aaron – son of Amram and Yocheved – and their descendants. (In fact, Numbers 28:9-10 is included in the Musaf Amidah on shabbat, and v. 16ff find their way into the Musaf Amidah on festivals.)

Who is this Serach? We first meet her in Genesis in the midst of a long genealogical list (Genesis 46:17); we are told the names of the four sons of Asher, son of Jacob, and his one daughter, Serach. From this we know that she was among the 70 souls who ventured down into Egypt with Grandfather Jacob to join Joseph, who had risen to viceroy of the land. As if a bookend, the census of parshat Pinchas, as well as the account of this same census in I Chronicles 7:30, tell us that Serach was among those who left Egypt with Moses and Aaron. How is this possible? The Israelites were in Egypt for more than four centuries!

The Bible has nothing more to say about Serach, but the Rabbis found her a most intriguing figure and filled out her story.

Serach alone spans the generations from Joseph to Moses, as Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah (B’Shellach) points out: from one trustworthy leader to another trustworthy leader. At the time of the Exodus, she is more than 400 years old. In the Babylonian Talmud, Serach is said to be the one who showed Moses where Joseph was buried so that the Israelites could carry his bones out of Egypt during the Exodus (b. Sotah 13a).

One midrash has her still alive in the generation of King David – by now at least 600 years old – by identifying her as the woman in II Samuel 20:16-22 who negotiates with David’s general Yoav on behalf of her city (Beraishit Rabbah 94:9).

Perhaps best of all is a midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah 11:3 in which the R. Yochanan interprets Exodus 14:22, which describes the walls of water formed by the parted Reed Sea. A question is raised: how could the water become a wall? R. Yochanan explains that it was a sort of net that held everything back from the dry seabed. But Serach – now at least 1400 years old! – appears in the bet midrash (study house) and declares, “I was there and the water was not a net, but transparent like windows.” Serach’s testimony is immediately accepted because she was an eyewitness.

It is not surprising then that a tradition emerged that Serach never died, but rather entered Gan Eden alive, as had Enoch, Elijah and a select group of others. Serach achieved immortality thanks to a special blessing Jacob bestowed on her after she shared with him the news that Joseph was still alive by singing the words to him accompanied by her harp. Here is the blessing: “My daughter, because you revived my soul, death shall never rule you” (Yalkut Shemoni II:367, Sefer ha-Yashar, Vayigash, 14, Derekh Eretz 1:18, Midrash ha-Gadol to Genesis 45:26).

The implication is that Jacob was alive biologically after the news of Joseph’s death, but for him life was over, devoid of sweetness, value, purpose, and meaning. Without Joseph, Jacob was finished with living. When Serach broke the news to him – gently, sensitively, and lovingly, lest he die physically of shock – Jacob’s whole being was renewed and his desire for life was restored because he had found purpose in the possibility of seeing Joseph once again. It was as if Jacob, who had alive-but-dead returned to the world of the living.

And who among us has not witnessed someone brought back to life after a medical calamity, or a devastating tragedy, or serious mental illness?

The second blessing of the Amidah praises God who resurrects the dead: m’chayeh ha-meitim, literally “who enlivens the dead.” The Rabbis ascribed the blessing to Isaac who, according to some midrashim (Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer 31; Tanchuma, Toledot 22), actually died when his father Abraham acceded to God’s command that he sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Taken together with this midrash from Shibbole ha-Leket (9a,b),

When Father Isaac was bound on the altar and reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on to Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be God, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him. That is why David, may he rest in peace, said: Like the dew of Hermon that comes down from the mountains of Zion... [Psalm 133:3] – for he is referring to that dew with which [God] revived Father Isaac. Forthwith the ministering angels began to recite, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who resurrects the dead.”

a picture emerges: Abraham completed the sacrifice, God resurrected Isaac, occasioning Isaac to be the first to say, “Blessed are You, O Lord, who resurrects the dead.”

There has long been controversy in the Jewish community concerning the phrasing of this blessing, the religious doctrine of resurrection that the Rabbis taught lies behind it, and whether or not it can and should be understood metaphorically.

There is a segment of the Jewish community that holds that the prayerbook should include only that which the community can all affirm, and in our time, few if any believe in a literal resurrection. I suspect that if we held ourselves to that standard, the siddur would resemble one of those blank books you buy at Barnes & Noble. Accordingly, some have changed m’chayeh meitim (“Who resurrects the dead”) to m’chayeh ha-kol (“Who gives life to all”) – an entirely different idea.

There are those who hold that we should recite the blessing as it has been handed down to us because it is tradition. (Are you humming those notes from Fiddler in your head at this moment?) If we cannot believe what it says, we can at least align ourselves with the generations before us that recited these same words.

There are those who hold that liturgy is poetry, and like our sacred texts, it is ours to interpret and reinterpret. Just as each generation is responsible for grasping and reinterpreting Torah to make it their own, so too must each generation make prayer its own.

I respect and find value in all three viewpoints, but I find the third more compelling. I don’t take Torah literally (indeed, I would deny that there is a “literal” meaning to any text; all understanding is mediated by interpretation). I struggle to interpret and re-interpret Torah year after year because I love it. As a Jew, it is my lifeblood. As Ben Bag Bag says of Torah (Pirke Avot 5:26), “Turn it and turn it again [study and scrutinize it], for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Do not stir from it for you can have no better portion of life than this.” Should I not afford the siddur similar respect, love, and consideration, and seek to make its words speak to me in a real, rather than superficial, way?

Steven Schwartzchild has pointed out that the resurrection doctrine is necessary to affirm the value of our embodied existence, as well as God’s power. Neil Gillman (Death of Death) considers resurrection mythological because it points to the “beyond.” It is not that he believes he will truly be resurrected in the days of the Messiah, but the message behind the doctrine of resurrection that moves him. He explains it more or less like this: “My body” is indispensable to my sense of self. “I am my body.” Without a body, we would have no existence in time and space. Since there is no “me” without my body, whatever God has planned must include my body. He writes:
This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth. The mythic thrust of this doctrine is that it is this totality in its concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time. (pp. 271-272)
Serach brings Jacob back to this world, back to a life of meaning and purpose. Jacob, recognizing this, blesses her with immortality. Perhaps she is mentioned in the census in parshat Pinchas to remind us that each of us can reclaim life at any time. Moreover, after we die, something of each of us remains forever because each of us has left his or her imprint on the world – the world is different for our having lived. And even more, we are linked not only to the generations before (as the midrashim about Serach point out so beautifully) but to those yet to come (as her immortality reminds us). We pave the way for them and bequeath this world to them. They live because of us and in so doing, keep us alive – even after we are dead. "Fame" has it right: "I'm gonna live forever."

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Blessing & cursing, Being a blessing & being a curse/ Parshat Balak

My son was married last week. I am blessed with a wonderful daughter-in-law. Since the wedding, friends from around the world have been writing to convey their warm wishes and to bestow their blessings on the newlyweds. One friend wrote, “May the lives of the happy couple overflow with health and fulfillment!” Another wrote, “May they know happiness and joy - osher v'osher.” And this one for our family: “May you and yours be present at many happy events for years to come.” To each and every blessing I say, “Amen!”

We all want our lives to be filled with blessings. Keep the curses far away from us! Remember the rabbi’s blessing for the Tsar? “May God bless and keep the tsar… far away from us!” But are we ourselves a blessing or a curse to others?

The story of Balaam and Balak told in this week’s parashah is about many things, among them blessing and curse. On the surface, the story of Balaam, prophet of Moab who is hired by King Balak to curse Israel, seems a curious tale of jealousy, paranoia, and power, topped off by the whimsical element of a talking donkey whose command of Hebrew grammar is impressive. Lying just beneath the surface is a truth far more insidious: King Balak, out of fear, seeks to curse Israel – essentially a death sentence for thousands.
Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:2-3)
The Israelites have defeated the Amorites in battle. Now, however, they are encamped peacefully on the border of Moab, presenting no threat to their hosts. Balak cannot see that; rather, in his eyes the Israelites are a marauding herd of animals. Balak hires the prophet Balaam to rid him of the plague of Israelites in his backyard:
Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)
Two resonances in this one verse are remarkable. First, Balak is concerned with the burgeoning population of Israel, echoing the concern of an earlier king – Pharaoh – who also felt threatened by Israel’s robustness and sought her destruction.
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.”… But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. (Exodus 1:8-10, 12)
Concerning this first resonance: just as Israel continued to proliferate in Egypt, so too do the Israelites, threatened by yet another king who views them as a danger and seeks to curse them. Pharaoh’s curse – in the form of edicts to kill the baby boys and make the people’s servitude harsher – derives from fear and insecurity.

Second, King Balak’s words echo those of God to Avram when God sent him from his homeland, out into the wider world:
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
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)
Concerning this second resonance: the influence of Avram over other nations is passive; what they send out to Israel will return in kind, be it blessing or curse. It is not Avram who blesses or curses; it is others who choose blessing or curse by the nature of their interaction with Avram and his clan. (Pharaoh’s curse came rocketing back at him in the form of the Ten Plagues.) King Balak, in seeking to curse Israel, ultimately curses the Moabites.

Balak ascribes to the Moabite prophet Balaam, however, the power to bless and curse on God’s behalf. How strange that Balaam – a pagan prophet – is acknowledged to possess the power to curse Israel thereby sentencing many in her midst to death. The prophet’s curse is cosmic conviction. Execution will be carried out on the battlefields of Moab.

Balaam’s power, we know, comes only with God’s acquiescence. And God does not permit Balaam to curse Israel, despite the hefty fee Balak is prepared to pay.
God came to Balaam and said, “What do these people want of you?” Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Tzippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: Here is a people that came out of Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.” But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (Numbers 22:9-11)
Balak presses. He offers more money. God permits Balaam to accompany Balak and his entourage view Israel from a vantage point ideal for casting a curse upon them. When it appears that Balaam may well accede to Balak’s request, God stations an angel in Balaam’s path. Balaam cannot see the angel, but his donkey can. God opens the mouth of a donkey – a lowly animal (recall how Balak described Israel as a herd of lowly animals) – and speaks words of wisdom and insight. She can see what the prophet himself cannot see: an angelic manifestation of God.

Consider the remarkable reversals here: In the sight of Balak, Israel are animals, yet God blesses them. Balaam, hired to curse them, is prevented by his animal who speaks like a human and sees the angelic manifestation of God Balaam cannot see. Those who bring blessing see, hear, and are blessed. Those who bring curse are blinded, unable to hear, and curse themselves in the end.

We bring blessing and curse to other people’s lives on a daily basis through our words, our deeds, and our failures to speak and act. When we operate out of fear and insecurity – as did Pharaoh and Balak – we are most likely to be a curse rather than a blessing. But when we act out of our love for God and God’s Creation, we bring blessing. As shabbat approaches, consider whether you have been a blessing or a curse to those in your life during the past week. Where did you act out of fear and insecurity? Where did you act with love and concern?

This pertains not only to personal relations, but to leadership style, as well. There are people in positions of power and authority who command and demand, even disparaging and humiliating those under them. They are the Pharaohs and Balaks. They operate out of fear and insecurity masked by excessive arrogance and a show of power. And there are those who see their leadership not as a position of power, but rather one of empowerment. They seek the growth and fulfillment of those who work for them. They know that with the blessings of growth and fulfillment come greater productivity and loyalty.

This principle also pertains to parenting. Parents who dominate their children’s lives, making their decisions and shielding them from all pain, do not realize that they bring the curse of insecurity and dependence upon their children. Parents who empower their children to make good decisions, face challenges, and cope with what life dishes out, and who do not ridicule them for mistakes (who among us has not made mistakes, after all?) bless their children with confidence and honestly earned self-esteem.

Bottom line: Those who primarily exert power over others often curse them. Those who empower others bless them.

May Leora and Danny enjoy all the blessings bestowed on them. May you be blessed with all that you wish for yourself. And may you in your life be a blessing to those around you.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman