By Mark S. Young
Have you ever seen something beautiful others saw as ugly? Likewise, have you ever been instructed to hate when your intuition tells you to love?
A major lesson from this week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2−25:9), is to follow our intuitions and to believe in the power of blessings and love. The portion is a compelling drama involving a wizard, Balaam, who is asked by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites. Threatened by this strange and vast people who escaped bondage in Egypt, Balak, promises riches to Balaam in exchange for the deed. Unfortunately for Balak, Balaam speaks only the word and intentions of God.
With no personal aversion or hate toward the Israelites, Balaam initially refuses to meet with Balak until Balak persuades him further, and God allows Balaam to make the journey from Pethor to Moab. On the way, Balaam’s donkey gets distracted and goes off the path when she (yes, the donkey is a she-donkey) sees an angel of God in front of her. Balaam, perhaps blinded by a growing desire for the forthcoming reward upon fulfilling Balak’s command, beats the donkey three times for her transgression, failing to see the angel of God. The donkey then speaks, advising Balaam she is swerving to avoid the angel in front of them. In that moment, Balaam’s perspective shifts. He realizes he is ignoring his intuition.
When Balaam and Balak finally meet, Balak takes Balaam to view the Israelites at three different places. At each site, the two men arrange for an altar and for animals to be sacrificed. Each time Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Israelites, Balaam blesses them instead. At the third site, Balaam sings out the words that are part of our morning liturgy:
“מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov, mishk’notecha, Yirsael.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
“Enraged at Balaam, Balak struck his hands together. ‘I called you,’ Balak said to Balaam, ‘to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times! Back with you at once to your own place! I was going to reward you richly, but the LORD has denied you the reward.’” (Numbers 24:10-11)
“Balaam replied, ‘Though Balak, were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the LORD’s command. What the LORD says, that I must say.’” (Numbers 24:13)
Today, although we likely won’t see angels, encounter talking donkeys, or feel physically unable to curse, we do have b’tzelem Elohim, the Divine image, within each of us—in our hearts and in our souls—to guide us through this life, help us to see the inherent beauty in everyone and everything, and embrace our natural intuition to love and offer blessing.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, in his assessment of Balaam’s actions, references Maimonides, the 11th-century scholar, who explains that “all God’s acts have a moral message for us.” Sacks continues, “I believe that God is teaching us that love can turn curses into blessings. It is the only force capable of defeating hate. Love heals the wounds of the world.”
Often in today’s world, we are instructed to be consumed by our fear that can nudge us to think in binary terms of “us vs. them;” to love only our own; to fear the “other;” or to see individuals solely as a means to an end—vendors, employees, even members of our own family—for whom we do deeds for whatever “riches” we may receive in return.
Instead, in this parashah, the Torah advises us to listen to our hearts; to use our own personal wizardry to bless others; and to see the mah tovu (how good; goodness) and love in each individual. Just as Balaam, with God’s help, blessed the Israelites, so, too, can we embrace transformation over transactions in our relationships with others, seeing them as b’tzelem Elohim and knowing they—and we—are innately programmed to love and bless.
May we, in our beautiful and challenging world, lean in to love, trust our “goodly” perspectives, listen to our hearts, and lead by offering blessings to all with whom we engage.