CLERGY CORNER: Curses vs Blessings

Posted on 28 July 2016 by LeslieM

The portion of Balak tells the fascinating story of Bilaam, a prophet, who was summoned by the Moabite king to curse Israel. In the end, in lieu of curses, the prophet gushes forth the most splendid poetry ever written about the uniqueness and destiny of the Jewish people. His poetry has become classic, a wellspring of inspiration for thousands of years, recited daily in Jewish liturgy and prayers.

Yet there is something profoundly confusing about the narrative. The Bible relates how the emissaries arrive from Moab and Midian. They state their mission: They want Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam tells them to stay the night, while he consults with G-d. G-d’s answer is unequivocal: “G-d said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.’” Bilaam obeys. He refuses to go. Balak, the Moabite king, redoubles his efforts. Perhaps more distinguished messengers and the promise of significant reward will persuade Balaam to change his mind.

He sends a second set of emissaries. Bilaam’s reply is moving: “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my G-d.”

However, he adds a fateful rider: “Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else G-d will tell me.”

The implication is clear. Bilaam is suggesting that G-d may change His mind. But this is impossible. That is not what G-d does. Yet, to our surprise, that is exactly what G-d seems to do: That night G-d came to Bilaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”

Bilaam followed G-d’s latest instruction. He got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. “But G-d was very angry when he went, and the angel of G-d stood in the road to oppose him.”

The narrative now shifts to the famous scene of Bilaam’s donkey. What is going on here? Why did G-d change His mind four times?! First G-d says no, than it becomes yes, then it is no again, and finally it’s a yes! What was Bilaam suppose to do? Not go? But G-d told him explicitly to go. The story seems like an unfair setup for Bilaam. G-d tells him to go, and then gets angry at him for going!

Initially G-d prevented Bilaam from cursing because “the nation is blessed.” Therefore, he says “Do not go with them”. Bilaam passed along this message of G-d, but Balak did not believe him, and proceeded to increase to honor him with greater messengers and promised him greater reward. Bilaam answered the second group that the issue is not the money, and it is not up to him, rather it is up to G-d. He agreed to inquire again what G-d will command him. In this, he conducted himself properly, because Bilaam knew the Higher Knowledge, and that G-d’s advice is always good. Now G-d told him: “I already told you that this nation is blessed and unable to be cursed. Now, why have they, Balak’s ministers, returned to you? If they only want you to go with them and not curse at all, then get up and go with them, but only the word that I place in your mouth shall you do, and even if I command you to bless them you must bless them without being afraid of Balak.

So G-d wanted Bilaam to go with the ministers after telling them first that He would not be able to curse the Jews, and would only follow G-d’s instructions.

G-d wanted that the Jews be blessed by a prophet of the non-Jews. Bilaam was supposed to tell all of this to the ministers of Balak. However, Balak specified the second time as well, “Come, please curse this nation.” He only wanted Billam to curse, not prophesize or anything else.

But, Bilaam, in his overeagerness to go, did not tell them any of this and, instead, “he woke up early in the morning, saddled his own donkey, and went with them” as if he was going to fulfill their request.

From here, you see that “man is led down the path he wishes to travel” because, originally, Bilaam was told “Do not go with them” but since he had audacity, he went. That is why it says “G-d’s wrath flared because he was going.”

G-d said to him: “Wicked one! I do not want the destruction of the wicked, but since you insist on your own destruction, by all means, go!”

Choose your path wisely!

Rabbi Tzvi Dechter is the Director of Chabad of North Broward Beaches. New location coming soon. For all upcoming events, please visit www.JewishLHP.com.

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