The red heifer, life and death, and the story
Psalm before the summer solstice

What we learn from Balaam about blessing

MahTovucolorlogo"How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling-places, O Israel!" We sing these words at the beginning of morning prayer as part of Mah Tovu. This is a quotation from this week's Torah portion, Balak; the words come from the foreign prophet Balaam, who was hired by Balak to curse the Israelites.

Balaam seems to have a standing relationship with God, which is unusual. In the Biblical mindset, foreign prophets have relationships with their own foreign gods (this is the henotheistic view -- our God is the right one, but there are other gods out there) or perhaps they are deluded altogether (this is the monotheistic view -- our God is the only God; there are no others), but it's rare for the Torah to show us a prophet of another tradition who's on speaking terms with the One.

Twice Balak sends messengers to Balaam to persuade him to come and curse the children of Israel, and each time Balaam says: I can't do or say anything contrary to the command of my God Adonai. Balaam speaks directly with God twice. Eventually God says to him: okay, fine, go. But when you get there, you're going to say what I tell you to say. That refrain is repeated by the angel of God who temporarily stands in Balaam's way the next morning.

When Balaam gets to the mountaintop, he instructs the king to make lavish sacrifices, and then goes off alone to commune with God before offering any words. God becomes manifest to Balaam and tells him what to say, and instead of curses, Balaam offers blessings. Not once, but thrice. Balak, exasperated, finally says "don't curse and don't bless" -- don't say anything! But Balaam can't help offering blessings. Balak sends him away in a huff, thoroughly exasperated that his plot has been foiled.

The story is practically slapstick. Balaam repeatedly tells the king that he can't offer curses when God wants blessings, but the king refuses to listen, dragging the prophet from mountain to mountain as though he might offer a different proclamation from differnet ground. (And of course there's the talking donkey who sees the angel of God when the prophet does not. That one never gets old.)

Priestly-blessing-englishBut behind the slapstick I find a powerful message: when we're attuned to God, we offer blessings. Even when we're primed, contextually, to think in terms of curses. Even when those around us are prompting us to respond with unkindness and vitriol. One who is listening for the presence of the Holy One of Blessings will respond with blessings, not curses.

This isn't a modern text or context. But we can extrapolate from it. There are places (both online and off) where hatred and vitriol are cultivated. There are people who seem to delight in saying awful things about others. They are modern-day Balaks, and they behave in ways designed to rouse our energies of anger and hatred in response.

It is easy to get drawn-in to that worldview and to respond to their hatred with hatred of our own. But Balaam is our reminder that there is another path. Take deep breaths, open yourself to God's presence, and instead of offering anger, offer blessing. Unveil your eyes, as Balaam did, and find something to bless. This is a high level of spiritual practice. But if a foreign prophet was capable of it (even in the Biblical paradigm), then surely so are we.


The image of the priestly blessing is from Cymbal Designs.

Previous years' commentary on Balak