Those Who Curse
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Parshat Balak centers around the idea of blessings and curses. This is a major theme of the Torah, which promises great rewards to those who follow G-d’s commandments and punishments for those who disobey. However, the desire for practical benefits or the fear of negative consequences should not be the basis for our service to the Creator. The Torah is a Tree of Life, which should be observed because it is the best way to live and is thus an end in itself.
As the Rabbis say, “The reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah.” However, most of us are not on a spiritual level where we can appreciate this exalted teaching, and certainly not at the outset of our religious journey. Thus, we need external incentives to do things, even those that are truly beneficial to us. In this sense, we are no different from children who must be bribed to go to the doctor who will cure them of their ills. They can’t appreciate the benefit of health, just as we can’t comprehend the value of spiritual fulfillment.
The inability to recognize the true good of Torah is a major problem that haunts the Jewish people. This defect is not limited to the nonreligious, or to the denominations that have abandoned classical Orthodox Judaism. Even observant Jews do not necessarily discern the true character of Torah and the real purpose of the mitzvot (commandments). Many observe the commandments because they have powerful religious feelings and seek G-d’s protection by fulfilling His will. I have the greatest respect for all who affirm Judaism and observe it on some level, no matter what the motivation.
However, it is important to acknowledge the significance of the blessing in the Amidah prayer in which we beseech G-d to “bring us back, Hashem, to Your Torah and bring us close, our Father, to your service.” We pray that G-d will return us to His Torah, which, in my opinion, refers to a proper understanding and appreciation of the real meaning of the Torah. For it is altogether possible to have a defective understanding of Torah and still perform the commandments.
Can we achieve the full benefit of the mitzvot if we have a faulty understanding of their meaning and purpose? I believe that it is wonderful to be a religiously observant Jew. However, that should be regarded as a starting point. One should constantly strive to upgrade his understanding of Torah and mitzvot.
When Moshe prayed to G-d, “Show me Thy ways,” he justified the request by saying, “In order that I will find favor in Your sight.” The Rambam deduces from this that Hashem finds favor with those who seek to increase their knowledge of Him. This should be a strong motivation to constantly pursue a greater understanding of G-d’s Torah. Doing so not only enhances our wisdom and understanding, but renders us more favorable in the eyes of Hashem. We should never be complacent or allow ourselves to stagnate in our practice of Judaism.
Parshat Balak deals with a different type of curse, that of man. Balak had witnessed the military conquests of the Jews and wanted to weaken and defeat them. He sought to undo them by soliciting the services of the renowned soothsayer, Bilaam. This individual had a reputation for being able to achieve things with his words. In entreating him, Balak said, “For I know that who you bless are blessed, and who you curse are cursed.” But we must ask, does any human have the power to bring about results by the mere utterance of words?
To attribute supernatural powers to any human is idolatrous. No pronouncement made by Bilaam could effectuate any change in the natural order. We must firmly believe that all curses enunciated by humans are completely ineffective. Yet the Torah does prohibit us from invoking the name of G-d to curse a fellow Jew. This is enjoined because it is a misuse of Hashem’s name and an act of hostility against another person who is psychologically vulnerable and who can suffer emotional harm by being the object of harsh vituperation. One who is totally sound in his belief in G-d has no concern about other people’s thoughts and words.
Had the Jews been at the highest level of understanding and Torah observance, there would have been no need to counter Balak’s intention. Bilaam’s curses would have been totally ineffectual. However, the Jews did have weaknesses and defects, and the evil genius of Bilaam might have detected them and revealed to Balak how he could exploit them. Hashem therefore intervened to protect His people.
This parsha is very relevant to our times. Israel’s enemies cannot defeat her militarily, thank G-d. They have taken to “cursing” her with names, calling her an aggressor, occupier, and other epithets. They seek to undermine Israel by depicting her as cruel and immoral, knowing that Jews are very sensitive to these types of accusations. We should be completely oblivious to the “curses” of these contemporary Bilaams. Their filthy labels are a reflection of their vile character traits, which they project onto the Jews. But what are we to do? We are human and vulnerable to world opinion.
The answer resides in Hashem’s warning to Bilaam: “Do not curse the nation, for they are blessed.” We are blessed with G-d’s Torah, which is the source of genuine morality. When we study its ideas and live by them, we will only be concerned with finding favor in His sight. Then we will be immune from the wicked accusations of evil people.
Shabbat shalom V’Chag Sameach.