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Balak 5782        July 16, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

 Shabbat Shalom

     “May you live in interesting times” is said to be an ancient Chinese proverb. Although, things you discover when you are looking things up, it really is not a Chinese proverb at all. It is from a British diplomat Joseph Chamberlain who was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. His speech in 1898 was reported in “The Western Daily Press” of Bristol, England: I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.” 

     It really does not matter who actually said it, but it is still true. We are living in most interesting times where history is full of new objects of interest and new objects for anxiety. I know some people have given up reading the news because it can be so depressing. I know that some people still listen to the news and then spend their days worrying about the future, their own future, the future of our country and the future of the world. Today’s world is certainly filled with items that are interesting and which make us worry.

     I am reminded of the movie “Bridge of Spies” where the attorney is bringing his client, a Soviet spy into a courtroom where the spy faces capital punishment if convicted. “Are you worried?” the lawyer asks his client. The spy responds, “Will it help?”

     We are always prone to worry. Like the man who received a telegram from his partner, “Start worrying… Details to follow.”

     In our parsha, Balak, the king of the Moabites is not happy to have the People of Israel camping just outside his border. Israel is not invading and wants to pass by, but Balak does not know what to do. The two Ammonite countries of Sichon and Og were defeated when they would not let the Israelites pass through their lands. Balak is worried about this massive army on his border, and he has no idea how he could possibly defeat them should they attack. Unsure if he can beat Israel militarily, Balak decides to turn the heavens against them. He summons Balaam to come and curse the People of Israel. But Balaam can’t curse those who God has blessed. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam offers three blessings over the Israelites. It is the third blessing that gets our attention. It is the one that starts out “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, Miskenotecha Yisrael.” “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob. Your dwelling places O Israel.” This part of his blessing becomes the prayer that is said every day at the beginning of our Shacharit service.

     As famous as the beginning of this blessing has become, the end was almost raised to an even higher prayer space. The blessing ends, “They crouch, they lie down like a lion, like the king of beasts; who dares rouse them? Blessed are they that bless you, Accursed are they who curse you.” There is a discussion in the Talmud if this passage should become a fourth paragraph for the Shema.

     The Shema is not like any other ordinary prayer. It is a statement of theology. It talks about what it is that Jews believe. It is a statement of how we see God in our lives. That is why it is such a central prayer in or siddur and in our service. We recite it morning and evening to remind ourselves of the importance of God in our lives.

     Why would the words of this pagan prophet be considered for inclusion in such a central prayer? The Talmud explains: Rabbi Abbahu ben Zutarti said that Rabbi Yehuda bar Zevida said: The Sages sought to establish the blessings of Balaam that appear in the Torah portion of Balak, as part of the [twice-daily recitation of] Shema. And why did they not establish it there? Because extending Shema would place an encumbrance on the congregation, [from which the Sages sought to refrain]. For what reason [did they want to include it]? Rather, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin said: The reason the Sages sought to establish the portion of Balak as part of the recitation of Shema is because it is written therein: “He couched, He lay down like a lion and a lioness; who shall rouse Him? [Those who bless You are blessed and those who curse You are cursed” (Numbers 24:9). This is reminiscent of what is said in Shema: When you lie down, and when you rise.] (Berakhot 12b)

     To Rabbi Yosi be Avin, there is a linguistic parallel between the passage in the Shema and in the blessing of Balaam. It is not just about lying down to sleep, but it is that our sleep is like the sleep of a lion, no one dares to wake up a lion. That is a sure way to a disaster. But while the imagery is good, where is the theology of sleeping like a lion? What do we learn about Judaism from this blessing of Balaam? The Sefat Emet, teaching in the 1880’s gives us our theological approach. He wrote, “Because a person should be strong in their service of the Divine and trust that, even when the ‘Other Side’ (Sitra Achra) and all that opposes sanctity [appears to be ascendent], all will be nullified to the will of the Holy Blessed One, so long as one walks on the path of truth.”

     Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler explains what the Sefat Emet is trying to teach. She writes, “What the Balaam story represents to the Sefat Emet is the triumph of blessing over curse and, more broadly, the triumph of good over evil. Despite Balak’s desperate, relentless efforts to bring harm to the Jewish people, he simply could not act against the will of a God who wished them well. Despite Balaam’s repeated attempts to curse them, he could not help but be an instrument of Divine favor. This is a lesson to us all, says the Rebbe, that even when the ‘Other Side’ looks like it’s winning, we ought to trust that good will prevail as long as we are on the side of truth and goodness.”

     This is something that is worthy of inclusion in the Shema. The Shema teaches us to love God, no matter if we are awake or asleep, working or playing, in our homes or out in the world we should never forget to love God and to remember that God loves us. God loved us enough to give us the commandments at Mt. Sinai and God loved us enough to free our people from Egyptian slavery. The Sefat Emet uses the blessing of Balaam to teach us that we should not forget God’s love even if things seem to be turning very bad. God’s love will redeem us, and we should always have faith that if we are on the path of the divine, we will never have any reason to fear for the future.

     It turns out, the only reason the Sages choose to leave out the blessing of Balaam from the Shema is because it would have made the Shema too long. It would be a burden to the congregation to have them sit and recite so many verses. Remember, in ancient days, books were too expensive, and prayers were memorized and recited, and the people would respond to what the leader was saying. Adding this blessing would add to what the people needed to say, and it would add more time to the service overall. It was just too much. Knowing that they could not add everything they wanted to the liturgy, the sages decided that Balaam’s blessing just made it all too long, so they did not require this blessing to be recited.

     But there is a lesson for us in these blessings from Balaam. Three times Balaam tried to curse the Israelites and three times God turned the curse into a blessing. According the Sefat Emet no matter how many time others may try and curse us, we will always have God ready to turn that curse into a blessing. Rabbi Smokler reminds us that this can apply to our time as well. She writes, “These are days in which the ‘Other Side’ appears so very much ascendent. Whether it’s violence in Highland Park, IL, Uvalde, Texas, or Ukraine; or assaults on women’s bodies (Dobbs) or on the environment (West Virginia v. EPA), we seem to be mired in muck. The Sefat Emet would have us trust that no matter how many times or in how many ways or places it seems that curses are befalling us and the larger communities in which we live, in the end good will triumph. Perhaps the rabbis wanted to include the story of Bilaam in the Shema because they recognized how hard a message this actually is to accept. They understood that we would need a twice-daily (at least) prod toward hope for it is so very difficult to keep hold of it. We would need a mantra, morning, and night, to keep us focused on the possibility of better days ahead.”

     Balaam’s blessing can be that mantra, that prayer that keeps us focused on the blessing from God that will be sure to arrive in the wake of the curse against our people. Rabbi Smokler does note that this kind of “positive thinking” can sometimes be difficult when times are really bad and just responding to every curse with “Don’t worry God will protect and bless us” is sometimes difficult to say and difficult to believe. Maybe that also is a reason it was left out of the Shema. It was asking too much of the people to maintain that degree of hope in the face of the many disasters our people had to face. Maybe such hope in the future would prevent us from doing what we could do to help turn the curse into a blessing. Sometimes it is our responsibility to turn disaster into triumph. Could Balaam’s blessing prevent us from doing all we can do to make this world a better place?

     The reality is that we need both. We need to do our part to keep ourselves, our community, and our world on the path of truth and justice. But when things seem to spiral out of control, we have the mantra of Balaam: May God bless those who bless you and may those who curse you be Accursed themselves. The arc of history is long. Evil, over time, destroys itself while those who walk on the path of God, stand tall at the end of the day. Is this too rosy an outlook for us in our day when the news we hear each day is so bleak? I always choose to be the optimist because I believe in God, I believe in the goodness of other human beings, and I believe that miracles can happen. Besides, being a pessimist never makes me feel any better!

     And may God always be near to spread our blessings to all those who would work with us and frustrate the plans of those who seek our destruction. May we be prepared to do what we must to fill our world with Blessings. As we say…. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784