Balak: Alienation and Curses

Click here to read original Hebrew text.

The Israelites had recently destroyed the two Amorite kingdoms of Sichon and Og and were coming to the Land. The Torah says,

(‘ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא ויקץ מפני בני ישראל, (במדבר כ”ב ג  / And the king of Moab felt like he had become an alien in his own land as Israel advanced and, he was stressed and felt that the end of his culture and traditions was imminent because Israel, that nation which had recently received the Torah, was nearby (Numbers 22:3). They had some new and powerful energy they were bringing with them.

The word used to describe how he felt, ויגר, is typically translated as “he became terrified“, but in terms of its root, it is also connected to the feeling of an outsider. One who experiences himself as an outsider is apt to feel paranoid or disoriented. One feels excluded from an inner circle. This is the feeling that Balak may have had.

כי רב הוא  / For they were numerous. Another interpretation is that their energy was powerful, that Israel was on its way and its culture and traditions were so great that those of Balak would be overrun. Balak was afraid of being invaded on many levels and he was concerned that he would feel as a marginalized non-Jew might feel in a Jewish land.

ויקץ מפני בני ישראל  The first word is usually translated by he felt threatened by them, but it also is spelled like a word which means the end, his end was imminent.

Balak, the king of Moab, viewed himself as above others. He was an elitist. He was better than everyone (in his eyes) and thus separate and apart from the Moabite people. He became terrified as though he would become alienated as a stranger and foreigner before the Jewish nation because he anticipated that their judges would take over. After all, they had just come from a place of powerful revelation, Mt. Sinai, and had received the law.  His fear was that the courts of Moab were going to be overrun by new judges who were going to rule in a new way.

So Balak sensed that he would be marginalized and banned before the children of Israel. And another thing bothered him: In the Talmud (Pesachim 66b), it says “leave Israel to their devices for if they are not prophets, they are sons of prophets,” which means whether there are prophets among the children of Israel or  not, God is watching out for us. In the situation between God and Israel, there is an unmanifest love. Even when we were behaving poorly, (which happened a lot – the Torah’s very clear – we didn’t get what we’ve had because we were Tzadikim / wholly righteous. Rather, we made mistake after mistake after mistake), yet, we still had a covenant that kept us connected to God’s will. And the prophets of yore and their influence are still there helping us so we can renew that covenant. All of this was known to Balak.

And like Balak, the people who were running the Moabite religion, the idol worshippers (lit. worshippers of stars and planets) were bothered by the same. It appeared to them that the Israelites were going astray because they believed their own religion was the true religion and, they didn’t believe in the Jewish God. Furthermore, if their religious practices were going to be replaced, these people would end up losing the privileged place they had obtained. So Balak went to enage with the people who had the most to lose, the priestly class, the ones with the most to worry about. So they wanted to delay the nation of Israel from enslaving them and condemning them to fulfill their wishes.

The Moabites feared the Jews had an agenda and that they wanted to take over the religion.

We read the Torah because it connects us to a place from which we come. It was from a different time and culture and the mindset of this story is one of triumphalism. Our task now is different. We recognize that every religion is like an organ of the planet and if we don’t all collaborate, how will we get to heal our mother the planet?

Balak said to Balaam, (Numbers 22:6) את אשר תאור יואר  / “whomever you curse (taor) is cursed“. Balaam said to God,  קבה לי את העם / “curse (kava) the people for me” and, he uses a different word for “curse” (kava instead of taor).  And Hashem says to Balaam, לא תואר / “you shall not curse” (switching the root of the word back from kava to aror). Both of these words mean curse, but they each have different power. There’s three different words for cursing.  (יש קללה ויש נוֹקב ויש ארור).

First, there’s somebody who does not send you respect; someone who pursues your disgrace or your degradation or puts you down in some way: for this we use the first word, klalah from the word soft/light Kalah. In Lech L’cha when God is talking to Abraham he says that those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will be cursed. This is ani aor I will curse, b’klala shel aror mamash, so there’s something about klalah and aror that go together; aror is the way that God promises to return to someone who has cursed Abraham with a curse of klalah.

So if there’s someone who makes you feel bad, somebody’s taken away your honor, then you can wish them something bad or you can get to a place where you say, “I recognize and honor the reasons why you’re doing this, I have pity and compassion for you. I will manage my anger and I recognize that cursing you does not help the situation. So I’m not going to send you negative vibes because I don’t want to make things worse than they already are and I feel sad for you. Yes, you’ve hurt me and you’ve made me feel angry, but I am not going to try to get revenge.”

So you can go to that place too, which is a better place. But you can also go to the taor place which is like AAAH!

Balak wanted to remove the protection with the clouds of glory that surrounded the Israelites. The word kava is much more severe than the word aror, so it’s almost on the level of wishing them dead. (Nokev in modern Hebrew means to pierce, so it’s like actually piercing them, wishing they were dead in a way that is similar to the way a voodoo doll is used to cause pain or to kill a person.) That’s why he used the language, kava. Balaam asks for a kava and God returns, I’m not going to yaor them which means not only will I not harm them, I will not even wish them any ill.

We can learn something about this cursing business from something Balak says in the text. They are changing locations because the first cursing attempt didn’t go so well. Balaam‘s curse came out sounding like a blessing. Balak says, (Numbers 23:13), “Come with me to another place from where … you will only see a part of them, not all of them and curse them for me from there“. This clue helps us understand that in order to curse someone you must mask out the part of the person which is good. He whose eyes are open sees that (Mishnah avot 4:3) “There is no man that has not his hour,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) “For everything has an appointed season and there is a time for every matter.” And none of us are oopses of God.

So please, work hard not to curse. If there is a person that you are going to curse please remember that you are only seeing a part of them. Perhaps if you could see other parts of them then you would follow a different course.

From the beginning of the parashah, Balaam refers to God through the name Yod Heh Vav Heh.

(NOTE: Every name of God has different connotations and YHVH is the special interface to God used by Jews and Jewish prophets when they are addressing God. Elohim refers to God more generically.)

For example, in verse 22:8, (“Lodge here for the night, and I will give you an answer when YHVH speaks to me“) and then, in verse 22:18, he says, Yod Heh Vav Heh Elohai (“I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of YHVH Elohai“), And then, in verse 19, “what Yod Heh Vav Heh  will continue” (“remain here overnight and I will know what YHVH will continue to speak with me“), again using the reference to God through the name Yod Heh Vav Heh.

In contrast, when Moses tells the story (i.e., the words of the Torah narrative, sometimes also referred to as the Sacred Historian), Moses relates the interactions as being with the Elohim. For example, Moses says in verse 9, “Elohim came to Balaam,” and in verse 22 it says “Elohim‘s wrath flared” when it relates that Balaam decided to go with the dignitaries to Moab to curse Israel despite the feedback that this is not God’s will.

So why does Balaam connect himself to the name YHVH until he gets back the answer from the angel of Yod Heh Vav Heh, (the one who stands in his way to stop him)? The answer is Balaam was emulating the Israelite prophets who receive their communication from the name YHVH and all Israelite offerings are to YHVH. In addition, the name Yod Heh Vav Heh is associated with God’s compassion (as opposed to Elohim which is associated with God’s judgment) and Balaam was trying to bring God’s Rachmanis / mercy, compassion onto Moab.

He made a mistake in his calculation. He thought that he was going to get Rachmanis / mercy for Moab. But he didn’t realize that the name Yod Heh Vav Heh is only uniquely used by and for Israel, so if he wanted to get Rachmanis on Moab he wouldn’t be able to do it with the name Yod Heh Vav Heh for that is only the Jewish name for God. Each of the other nations has its own name which they call upon. (So if he wanted Rachmanis  for Moab he should have prayed to their god). This is reinforced in the text of Deuteronomy 4:7 where it says that we Jews have Yod Heh Vav Heh our God so near that at all times we call upon Him. It refers to Israel.

Therefore, Balaam changed his way of connecting to God, saying “that which Elohim puts in my mouth that I will speak” Numbers 22:38 after he saw that the angel of YHVH was standing in his way. And he changed once again when he realized that this too wouldn’t work to create a curse situation. So he went back to connecting through the name Yod Heh Vav Heh (ibid 23:12) (“What YHVH puts into my mouth that I must take care to say“), acknowledging that he needed to accept that his intentions, irregardless, would be overridden by the desire of YHVH, the God of the Israelites.

One Response to “Balak: Alienation and Curses”

  1. Ellen Rubin Appelbaum Says:

    Hello, Reb Zalman Schachter.

    About 32 years ago you reached out and answered a letter I had written at a moment when I was about to sever my ties with Yiddishkeit forever. You heard me.

    I am filled with gratitude to you for writing back.

    I wrote you on a Friday night, coming home from a meditation group that wasn’t going well. You wrote (March 19, 1981), “I’ve been trying to call you but you’re not listed. Contact me.”

    So I did. When you found out I lived in Brooklyn you said, “You must contact my friend Yehudah Fine. They’ve just had a new baby though, so give them a few weeks.”

    Yehudah and Elliesheva did indeed open doors to me. But it was an interview with you in the New Jewish Times about a kosher ark? something environmental that led me to find you to begin with. And you led to them. And they led to more.

    That year was also Birkas HaChamah. You conducted the prayer on top of the Empire State Building at dawn. We set a bunch of yellow and red helium balloons free at the end of the ceremony (in 1981).

    I also wish to ask mechilah. In 1982 I worked for Yehudah Fine as his secretary; one of my jobs was to answer the phone. On two occasions I was pretty sure it was your voice at the other end of the line. I didn’t say so, though. I offered to take a message and the voice at the other end of the phone said never mind.

    I do think it was you.

    Reb Zalman, you did a great thing by writing to me. Your reaching out is a model of strength. Thank you, and may G-d bless you with continued strength and health.

    Warm regards,
    Ellen Rubin Appelbaum, aka Ahuvah.

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