Instructed To Curse, Inspired To Bless

He came to curse, and ended up reciting a blessing so beautiful it is prominent in our liturgy.

Print this page Print this page

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
 

What would you think of a Gentile wizard spouting beautiful Hebrew poetry, but tongue-tied at his grandest moment; a prophet claiming to know the will of God, but not the will of his own ass; an ass who sees angels unbeknownst to his own master, the great seer; and a prophet hired to curse Israel proclaiming that nobody can curse that which God does not?

To top off this bundle of contradictions, the curse of the seer Balaam was deemed such a blessing that it became enshrined as the opening words of a prayer to be uttered upon entering a synagogue--"How goodly are your tents O Jacob, Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya'akov."

Although this parashah as a whole is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, the greatest paradox remains the incorporation of the intended curse of the wicked Balaam into the prayers of Israel. One authority took such umbrage at this inclusion that he refused to mouth the line altogether. Others countered that the hallmark of credibility is precisely the praise that is forthcoming from the lips of a foe as are the chidings of a friend. How else does one explain why the Torah has Moses rebuking Israel and Balaam praising her?

Balaam is also a good model for prayer. He came to curse Israel and in the end, upon observing Israel's places of worship, blessed her. If through involvement in the worship of the community negative feelings can be transmuted into positive ones, is not there hope for us who being far from blaspheming should be that much closer to blessing?

Maybe one who cares enough to curse can be transformed into one who feels enough to praise. If it is true that one riled up enough to blast can become inspired to bless, then there may be no greater curse than not caring.

Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Reuven Kimelman is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.