On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: From Curses to Blessings - Parashat Balak

Sometimes the darkest moments bring out the light and opportunities arise for adversaries to become advocates. This week, in Parashat Balak, we learn about King Balak, who fears the Israelites and decides to have them cursed. Balak’s hired soothsayer tries to curse the Israelites three times, but the words that come forth are a wonderful surprise, which can inspire us all.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion of the week in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Balak, and he asks us what transformation can look like-- everything from curses to blessings.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Balak from the Book of Numbers. It is a remarkable series of interactions. We have the king, Balak, who is, frankly, the king of one of ancient Israel's enemies. And he looks out at the Israelites camped out ready to come into the land. And he's petrified. He's afraid of us. Imagine that. Here this group of former slaves wandering through the desert, and they are formidable. They are intimidating. So Balak in a desperate move hires an idolatrous soothsayer named Balaam to curse the Israelites. And as much as Balaam tries, and he tries to go and curse them, it doesn't actually turn out. And then finally, in the third oracle, in chapter 24 of Numbers we have the very famous Mah Tovu. The prayer that now is recited upon entering synagogues is actually a verse from chapter 24 of Numbers, verse 5, where it says, "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel." Mah tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael.

And so here is Balaam trying to utter a curse. And he has actually a moment where the spirit, the Ruach Elohim, the spirit of God enters him. And instead of cursing the Israelites, out comes this very prayer, this blessing. And amazingly, this is how we start every day in the synagogue. This is the prayer that is said when we enter a synagogue for morning prayer.

And amazingly, in our new Mishkan T'filah edited by Rabbi Elyse Frishman, we have a wonderful quotation from a traditional prayer manual called Mikdash Me'at. And it's actually in the notes below on the page where we have Mah Tovu. And it describes what you're supposed to do. So it says, "When you see the synagogue from a distance, say, how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. Upon arriving at the synagogue door, stop momentarily to arrange your clothes properly. Make sure you're put together." And say the next verse, that is a quotation from Psalms, which you have gathered together to form this prayer. "I, through your abundant love, enter your house." Then the guide tells us, "Then enter with dignity and awe, bowing slightly toward the holy ark. And say, I bow down in awe at your holy temple. I love your temple abode, the dwelling place of your glory." It then says, "Then walk in a bit. And bowing again, say, I will humbly bow down before Adonai, my Maker." Then give a little tzedakah, a little charity for the poor, "as much as you can afford. And concentrating within yourself, say, here I stand ready and willing to perform the commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. Then you may pursue the love of God." Then you may offer the prayers of the morning. What a beautiful practice upon entering a prayer space.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman, in his wonderful series "My People and the Siddur" reminds us that in ancient prayer, the Mah Tovu and all the pre blessings of the morning were said by individuals. They were not said by the organized group already gathered for prayer. And what's amazing to me is that this is a daily reminder that our job, our spiritual job as Jews, as people of faith, is transformation. Not simply obedience. Not simply doing a series of correct moral and ritual acts. But our job is to transform not only ourselves, but our world.

If you think about this guy Balak, a king who is an archenemy, hiring someone to curse us. Who ends up, according to the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin, in 105b, we're told that Balak is the ancestor of Ruth the Moabite, Ruth, the one who chooses Judaism and becomes the great-grandmother of King David. So Balak is actually the one from whom all these amazing leaders come forth from. And it reminds us every day to say the words of the one who came to curse us that came out blessing. How do we turn curses into blessings? What a great spiritual opportunity each and every day.

Just a couple more images also. If you've ever been to a morning prayer service in non-Orthodox or any setting, very often people are putting on their tallitot. And many of the tallitot are white large kind of garments. And there's a moment when people are in a sense wrapping themselves in their tallitot. And one image you have of this prayer is your tents, O Jacob. And there's a beautiful teaching by Karen Kushner recited by her husband, Rabbi Larry Kushner, in this same volume from Rabbi Larry Hoffman. And she says, going into the morning prayer and looking at this room filled with these flowing tallitot is to be reminded of the ancient tents of our people on their journey. And those tents are also thought of as the precursor to the synagogues, and the many different places in which we pray today. If you actually think for a moment, if I just could quote a little bit of the section that follows right after the Mah Tovu in the Book of Numbers from verses 5 and following, it's a beautiful phrase. And this is different than the prayer that we say each morning, because there they took just the first line and added psalms, versus from the Psalms. But the actual verses from the Torah go like this.

"How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel. Like palm groves that stretch out. Like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by the eternal, like cedars beside the water, their bows drip with moisture. Their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag. Their kingdom shall be exalted. God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, crush their bones, and smash their arrows."

It kind of sounds a bit brutal, but again the language of transformation. The language of a people wandering to a people settled, from a people who are afraid to people who are feared. I want to, just if I could, move to a contemporary example. By the way, just hold the image. In the Book of Zechariah we're told that the messiah will appear on a donkey. In Zechariah 9:9 you have, "Behold, your king is coming to you. He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey". So there's something about a donkey, which of course Balaam is riding. And his donkey talks to him. Not every donkey can do that. But there are a lot of images tucked into this little section. But I want to jump to a modern-day way that we might think of transformation from Balak, to Ruth, to David, to us. And this is to think of something from very recent past.

This past May in Washington, DC, the Reform Movement, the Religious Action Center-- which is an amazing part of our Reform Movement and our URJ-- hosted something called the Consultation on Conscience. And it was a chance for us to gather over 1,000 of us to raise our voices on the most essential moral questions facing particularly our nation, the United States. We of course are Canadian and American. But in our consultation, a majority of our efforts were directed towards American policymakers. And in the course of our gathering, we had invited Reverend Al Sharpton to speak. Reverend Sharpton has been in the last few years a wonderful ally. And he had invited Rabbi Pesner, and April Baskin, and others from our movement, Rabbi Steve Fox, to be part of his 1,000 Ministers March, to show solidarity in the case of hatred, and bigotry, and antisemitism. To show how the African-American community, the Muslim community, the Jewish community can stand together against hatred and bigotry. And he has been a wonderful ally to us. We also were well aware that back in the early '90s, when Reverend Sharpton was in an earlier stage of his career, he was an agitator. And he had been involved in ways that he was not proud of in terms of the community in Crown Heights around a very tense period around the Crown Heights riots.

So one of the questions-- and there's been some push back from some. We feel very confident that people change, countries change, and organizations change. That's part of the world. And that our job as Jews is to help that transformation. So are we to hold Reverend Sharpton responsible for hateful statements that he might have made earlier in his career? Or do we embrace an ally who stands with us and raises his voice in a very, very respectful and moral way? Our commitment was, we stand with our allies. And we don't erase that which happened in the past, but we also don't want to hold our ally to being locked in that. And I think of this transformation. And can we allow people to change? Can we allow leaders to move from being antagonist to being allies?

That's a big question for us. It's a question for us as individuals. And not to say that he's met all the halachic requirements of t'shuvah, the way in which we repair relationships or heal things that we have done in our past. But when he spoke to us at the consultation, he acknowledged particularly when Coretta Scott King called him out and really challenged him. And said to him, Reverend Sharpton, if you're going to be someone who tries to carry the mantle of my husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then you have to really improve and heal your leadership so you can be a worthy disciple.

It was a pretty powerful thing for him to quote the teacher that called him out, the amazing Coretta Scott King. And he gave a talk-- if you haven't heard the talk, you can get the link. We'll provide it. It's available to you on our Religious Action, our RAC.org website. Give it a listen. And listen to the teaching, listen to the clarity, and listen to the partnership that he articulated. So in thinking about this prayer, Mah Tovu, this parashah, Balak, here it is, a portion named after a hater of Israel. Imagine that. A Torah portion, Balak, named for someone who was famous for how much he hated us and tried to curse us. But in the end, it turned to blessing. And I think for all of us-- I don't care where you live or all the challenges that you face every day, what if when we go in to synagogues and we say the Mah Tovu as we walk in, what if we're reminding ourselves, be a transformer. Be a person who can move individuals, can move organizations, can move communities, can even move nations towards blessing. That feels to me like an urgent and very essential task of what it means to be Jewish.

And the last thought I have is that this prayer Mah Tovu ends with a beautiful, beautiful verse from the Psalms. Actually, Psalm 69 verse 14, where it says, "As for me, may my prayer come to you at a favorable time. Oh God, in your abundant faithfulness, answer me with your deliverance." Literally, [SPEAKING HEBREW], "I am a prayer to you." So how do we make our lives a prayer? Not in our lives saying prayers, but how do we in our lives become prayers? By embodying the very best, the most nobility, the most godliness. I think that's the teaching of Balak and Balaam. It's the teaching of Balak to the Biblical Ruth, to the King David, the author of so many of our psalms. It is the example of how we can walk that path of prayer, that path of blessing. And in the course of today, you may have the opportunity to turn someone's hate into a blessing, someone's curse into a prayer. It's not an easy thing to do, I'll be the first one to say that. But how powerful that everyday we're reminded, that's the work. Mah tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael, How goodly are your tents, Jacob, and your dwelling places, oh Israel. Places where we focus on and commit ourselves to transforming the world-- as it is filled with flaws, and misdeeds, and even hatred-- to a place filled with hope, and of kindness, and of goodness. Maybe that's why Balaam rides the donkey. He's not the messiah. But a messiah will bring a teaching that will help us to truly enact the blessing that we need to be. So say this prayer. But even more powerfully, let each of us be this prayer going forward.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. What more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, L'hitroat.