Friday, July 19, 2019 /16 Tammuz, 5779
Parashat Balak Numbers 22:2-25:9
From the first chapter of Genesis, when God speaks light into being, (Gen. 1:3) the Torah teaches that words matter. This week’s Torah portion highlights the impact of our words. Fearful that the Israelites are too powerful an enemy of his neighboring kingdom, Moabite king Balak decides to wage war against the Israelites. Rather than using swords, Balak turns to a more powerful weapon. He summons a sorcerer named Balaam to curse the Israelites with the power of words. Numbers Rabbah teaches, “As Israel relies on words of prayer and blessing, so Balak wanted Balaam to counteract his foes with words of curses.”
The words of a sorcerer should be no match for God, and yet God is concerned enough about Balaam’s curses to intervene. God tries to convince Balaam to reject Balak’s invitation to curse the people. When Balaam chooses to go anyway, Balaam learns that he can “utter only the words that God puts in [his] mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) God will not allow him to curse God’s beloved Israelites. Sure enough, when Balaam prepares to curse the people, he looks down upon them and is unable to do so. Rather than words of curse, his mouth erupts with words of blessing. Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenotecha Yisrael, he says. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
Some commentators explain that God prevented Balaam’s cursing, not because it would have been effective, but because it might have been perceived as such every time the Israelites faced a challenge. I believe that God’s intentions were far more immediate. God understood that whenever harmful words are spoken, they have an impact that cannot be easily quashed.
Rather than rolling off Balaam’s insults as the words of a crazy sorcerer, or excusing his actions, God felt a responsibility to prevent the rifts, hurt, anger and hatred that would have resulted from his words. God understood that staying silent was not an option, either. As Elie Wiesel teaches, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes, we must interfere.”
It is significant to note that God did not respond to Balaam’s curse with a curse. Instead of insulting Balaam, God did everything within God’s power to turn Balaam’s words of hatred into words of awe and admiration.
There is no surprise that the words Mah Tovu have a prominent place in our morning liturgy. This prayer reminds us that each day we are blessed with the power of words. While we can choose to speak words of hatred, or to remain silent, God implores us each morning to transform our thoughts into words of blessing.
Rabbi Cassi Kail