On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Balak: How Does a Curse become a Blessing?

Parashat Balak teaches us to draw strength and inspiration from everyone around us. We read the story of how the Moabite King Balak tried, and failed, to destroy the Jewish people with the help of his sorcerer Balaam. How does a curse become a blessing? This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs highlights how we can welcome all types of people into the family of Judaism, whether they were born into it or not.


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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 26 of "On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, will talk to us about Parashat Balak. He asks us how an enemy can become family, and he wonders if a curse could ever become a blessing.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we read Parashat Balak, not necessarily the best known of the Torah portions, unless you are at Jewish summer camp. If you're at a Jewish summer camp, or your child is at a Jewish summer camp, Parashat Balak is always, always a focal point of our study. It's an amazing portion, really. Balak is the name of a Moabite king, who is, in many ways, like many other Moabites, an arch enemy of the Jewish people. And he sends his sorcerer, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people. But no matter how hard Bilaam tries to curse the Jewish people, he can't. It comes out a blessing.

And the most famous blessing that he utters is “mah tovu ohelecha Ya'akov” -- how goodly are your tents, oh, Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. Amazingly, again, when we think about Balak, he's obviously a non-Jewish ruler of Moab, and his emissary is trying to curse us. But it raises the question of, who are non-Jews in our religious world? Are they people who are always our adversaries? Are they literally our enemies in history? Or, as we know today, are they members of our beloved family, people with whom we share our lives, we share our most important moments? And from home, we draw strength and inspiration.

In a not very well-known passage in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin, we learn that Balak's great-great-granddaughter is named Ruth, Ruth the Moabite, Ruth, the one in our tradition who comes to Judaism. She discovers Judaism. She's not born Jewish, but she chooses to link her fate and link her life and love to the Jewish people.

It turns out that Ruth's great-grandchild is King David, who is not only, perhaps, our most inspired political leader, but a poet, a dancer, a remarkable leader, whose descendants, we are taught, are to become those who are messianic, those who will help redeem the world. So how is it that this king, Balak, becomes linked to the Messiah, and how is it that an enemy not only becomes friendly, but becomes family?

It's about transformation. And how does a curse become a blessing? We're living in a moment now where we're redrawing the map of Jewish life, and we don't think of non-Jews as people that we are afraid of or that we have to keep our distance to. They are literally part of our circles of work, of family, and of love, and we are really reimagining what it might be to be able to draw strength from all of the different sources of inspiration and to turn fear into love, to be able to turn all of the scary, painful narratives of our history, where we face many, many, many harsh moments with very formidable opponents and oppressors.

We are living in a time when the map has literally become very, very different, and we no longer literally divide those who are with us by those who are part of our circle, but a wider circle. And we know that in our families, in our congregations, in our camps, in our circles, we draw strength and inspiration from those who come from Jewish backgrounds and those who come from outside of our Jewish backgrounds.

We say, mah tovu ohelecha Ya'akov -- how goodly are your tents of Jacob. How good it is to be in these dwellings, where we find ourselves literally rethinking who we are as a Jewish people, to get a wider embrace of those who not only could become part of us, but who could lead us as Ruth becomes not just a person who joins the Jewish people.

Her story is emblematic of someone who joins us and then leads us and leads us to redemption. So maybe, just maybe the degree to which we can embrace and widen our circle, we bring more inspiration. We bring more wisdom and more commitment and the ability to help redeem our world. That's the journey from Balak to Ruth to David to you and to me.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah." If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!