Parashat Hukat-Balak

Friday, July 3, 2020 /11 Tammuz, 5780
Parashat Hukat-Balak Numbers 19:1−22:1, 22:2−25:9

“How glorious are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

These words, which open our morning liturgy, come from an apparent enemy of Jewish people, Balaam. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the Moabite King Balak feels threatened by the strength and fortitude of the Israelites. He reaches out to a sorcerer named Balaam, who is known for his ability tap into supernatural forces and offer effective curses. King Balak asks Balaam to curse the Jewish people, but Balaam is hesitant to go head to head with God. Balak’s requests are consistent, and eventually God tells Balaam that it is okay for him to go on this journey, as long as Balaam continues to listen to God. The morning of fateful day, Balaam prepares to speak to the Israelite people. After conferring with God, and witnessing the beauty of the Israelite camp, Balaam finds that the only words he can utter are ones of praise:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, he says. “How glorious are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”

It may seem like a small detail, but the Maggid of Miedzyrzec explains that Balaam had noticed something he did not expect; the openings of Israel’s tents were directed away from one another. Balaam was struck by this sign of modesty and respect. It represented a people who did not want to oppose one another, but rather respectfully work together to build a just, moral, and compassionate society. The Talmud teaches that at this moment, Balaam realized, “These people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest upon them,” (Bava Batra 60a) and he could only offer words of blessing.

Balaam came to mountain prepared to curse the people, but after encounters with God, and after seeing the good among people Israel, he found himself unable to do so. As Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt teaches, this portion contains the powerful message that, “When we’re attuned to God, we offer blessings. Even when we’re primed, contextually, to think in terms of curses. Even when those around us are prompting us to respond with unkindness and vitriol. One who is listening for the presence of the Holy One of Blessings will respond with blessings, not curses…”

Balak had only one desire; to make war, rather than peace; to inspire curses rather than blessings. One only need to look at the comments on Nextdoor, news articles, or social media to see evidence that there are many modern-day Balaks. Filled with anger and fear, they speak in ways that inspire hatred and division. It is so easy to give in to the worldview of black and white, and to engage in destructive behavior. Balaam offers us another way; he pauses, takes a good look at the people he is speaking to, and has the courage to recognize the blessings they are worthy of receiving.

May we, like Balaam, attune ourselves to the divine, and bring more words of blessings into this world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail