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July 22, 2016 3:40 am

Curses Into Blessings

avatar by Harry Zeitlin

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Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass (1636 painting by Bartholomeus Breenbergh). Photo: Wikipedia.

Coastal Landscape with Balaam and the Ass (1636 painting by Bartholomeus Breenbergh). Photo: Wikipedia.

Even an elementary approach to Parshat Balak demonstrates that, in the long run, our enemies are unable to curse us, because The Holy One will always turn these curses into blessings — even if the latter only manifests later down the road.

The story is well-known. Balak, the King of Moab, fearing the approach of Bnei Yisrael on our way through the desert to the Promised Land, hires Bilaam, the evil prophet whose level of prophecy approached that of Moshe (although at the negative end of the spectrum) to curse Israel, weakening us so we’d become vulnerable to Moab’s military attack.

Overcoming first the resistance of God, who explicitly told Bilaam not to accompany Balak’s entourage, and later the refusal of his own ass to bring him to meet Balak — warned once again by The Creator “not to curse the people because they are blessed,” Bilaam nonetheless attempts to curse them. His words, however, are overcome by and replaced with: “God placed in his mouth…” and, much to Balak’s displeasure and fury, he proceeds to bless Bnei Yisrael instead.

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Familiar and reassuring, this is still just the “first-grade” lesson we all learned in elementary school. Yes, God will protect His People from ultimate harm, but there are deeper and more profound lessons here.

We say, “Yisrael v’Oreita v’Kudsha Brich Hi Chad Hu” — Israel, Torah and The Creator are all one. The Torah is not just a collection of words and letters, a quantity of ink on treated animal hide, not just the history of the Jewish people, not limited to a code of laws, but the entire Torah — all 600,000 letters, including those that don’t even appear, but which we are taught exist anyway — is itself a unique Name of God. Chained together to provide semantic meaning, or experienced as a string of letters, all are a part of the “meta-Name” and, as such, are filled with infinite light and holiness. When we, Yisrael, study and read the words of Torah, we chant and invoke aspects of God’s Holy Name.

Thus, even words of cursing or warning elsewhere in the Torah are names of The Creator and, as such, filled with blessing and light.

With this insight, the words of Bilaam take on an even deeper power than is already apparent. Curses, warnings, history and halachot are all part of the great blessing we receive whenever we engage with Torah.

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