Transforming our Curses into Blessings

In (and out of) synagogues, campuses, JCCs, summer camps and religious schools, people are developing opinions about hot-button issues. As a rabbi, I am painfully aware of how fraught discussions of Jewish identity, inclusion of interfaith couples, same-sex religious ceremonies, and Israel/Palestine can be. All too often, our communities erect a tense wall of silence around these issues. On many sides of the debate, people advocate for themselves on either side of this wall without the ability to truly see whomever is on the “other side.”

Too often, when people advocate around these issues, being empathic is regarded as compromise. Jewish communities must work against this reality to engage with everyone, regardless of their stance on these issues, in order to help people become resilient listeners to the Other, expand our narrow national discourse around these issues (most notably around Israel/Palestine) while thoughtfully dismantling ideological echo-chambers on both the right and the left, and to cultivate empathy in the Jewish communities in which we participate.

This week we read about Balaam — a strange sorcerer known for his powerful spells — who is promised power and wealth in return for cursing the Israelites when they are encamped in the desert. King Balak instructs Balaam to go to three different locations, hoping the view from each spot will inspire Balaam to be able to carry out his task. Each time, Balaam blesses the Israelites, despite Balak’s mounting fury. The third time he declares what the sages agree is his most potent blessing, the famous words that we recite each morning as we gather as a community for prayer: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael — How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).

Part of what makes these words so powerful is that they arise from a moment of true empathy with the Other. According to Dr. Aviva Zornberg, “[F]or the first time…[Balaam] becomes an I addressing a you [the Israelites], in direct speech.” This is a moment in which Balaam chooses empathy in the face of challenging circumstances. In this moment, he sees the Israelites, exhausted from their wandering in the desert, gathered in their tents. From his hilltop view, they look weak, insignificant. It would be so easy for him to utter a curse and finish them off. But his heart bravely drops into the valley to beat with them and their struggle. Their tattered tents are transformed, in that moment, into a mishkan (God’s dwelling place).

In a recent speech, psychologist Dr. Brene Brown characterized empathy as a courageous and vulnerable choice because it requires that we take on the feeling of the Other. Ultimately, Brown argues, the only way to create positive change in a relationship isn’t to respond to the Other – what makes something better is connection. This week, the Torah makes the powerful claim that the goals articulated above for our Jewish communities are not three separate agendas, but are all based on seeing the Other fully, as worthy of our respect and consideration – even as they challenge us.

The Torah emphasizes that this sense of transformative connection arises as Balaam sees the Israelites encamped in the wilderness. Sight, literally or figuratively, is a sense that is always available to us. But open-hearted seeing is a choice, and a difficult one at that. Though Balaam is promised wealth in return for cursing the Israelites, in each instance he prepares to carry out his mission, he instead chooses to respond with his heart, and blesses them with a vision of what can be. This is a quality of vision we, too, can each realize – but only if we are prepared to see the Other with an open heart, with curiosity, and a willingness to connect.

Discover More

Balaam Versus Pinchas

Pinchas saw the relationship of an Israelite and a Midianite as a curse--but perhaps he, like Balaam, could have turned it into a blessing.

Parashat Balak: Summary

Cursing and blessing the Israelites.

Spirit Strength

Balak intuited an important truth about the Israelites: Their strength was spiritual, not military.