Ever had one of those days? Or weeks? When things just fall to pieces around you? Sometimes it’s just stuff – a plumbing disaster or a flat tire. Sometimes it’s an interaction with another person that is so miserable that it ruins your day. For me, at least, those emotions of anger, hate, shame and embarrassment can completely knock me down into a bad place. It’s only natural, but it takes a lot of inner work to get myself on the right track.
I think of this as an inner struggle, which I am sure many of us have. It’s so hard not to take out your negative feelings on someone else. That’s why I think the Torah portion for last week, Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), is interesting. It’s not an easy text to study. There’s a lot in it, which is quickly summarized by the reformjudaism.org Torah study website as follows:
“Balak, the king of Moab, persuades the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can defeat them and drive them out of the region. However, Balaam blesses the Children of Israel instead and prophesies that Israel’s enemies will be defeated. (22:2-24:25)
“G-d punishes the Israelites with a plague for consorting with the Moabite women and their god. The plague is stayed after Pinchas kills an Israelite man and his Midianite woman. (25:1-9)”
This summary contains some detail, but skips the part where G-d stops Balaam in his tracks and keeps him from cursing Israel. It involves a talking donkey. (This is definitely a portion that you should re-read if you have forgotten it.) The donkey refuses to budge because an angel, sent by G-d, blocks its way. Balaam, a prophet, ends up blessing the Israelites, instead of cursing them, because he can speak only what the angel says he will put in his mouth. G-d tells Balaam what to say.
Is Balaam really a changed man when his curses become blessings? Is someone so filled with hate and curses able to turn things around for good? Or is this amazing blessing that he offers only happening because the Almighty intervenes?
I have a hard time believing in a personal form of the Divinity that pops down and fills our mouths with blessings. Some people do have that kind of faith, and believe that the right thing will arrive, heaven-sent, to save the day. For me, this portion is perhaps about something else.
Balak and Balaam are filled with hate and prejudice when they see the Israelites, who are in some sense, refugees. They are the “other” – strangers who are passing through, and many people find reasons to fear or hate the “other” in their midst.
Yet, just like those days when we have inner struggles, we need to have our better selves win out over feelings of negativity. Sometimes we can rise above our fear, anger or other feelings. When we do, sometimes we can observe the beauty of someone or something that is different and special. We can learn from that new experience.
I’m always knocked out by the beauty of Balaam’s blessing. Whenever I sing “Ma Tovu” – “How beautiful are your tents, Oh Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel” – which comes directly from this Torah portion, I feel the awe and wonder in the words. Rashi points out that the tents were placed so that their door flaps faced outwards. Even though in the encampment everyone was close together, they were able to maintain a sort of tidy privacy, and a space for separate families by placing their entrances away from one another.
I’ve felt overwhelmed by the hate speech, terrorism, starvation and war that are happening around us. Yet, sometimes, we see a little hope in the media reports. There are amazing people of all faiths who rise up to help. There are even people who capture a terrorist or criminal but conquer their own yetzer hara, or evil inclination, manage to find their best selves and keep that person from harm until the police arrive.
Why does this portion begin with a curse that turns to a blessing, and end with a plague and punishment? I have a hard time with this sort of literal punishment, but it seems like a powerful metaphor. Perhaps it is a way of reminding us that even when we are tempted, and struggle with curses and acts of violence, we must find our best selves and behave morally. We must offer blessings to others. We have to open ourselves up to the “other.” We can learn from and admire their ingenuity. We also need to stick to our beliefs, and guard against being led astray. We can avoid that part inside ourselves that seeks to do harm, and try to help others control that urge to harm, too.
In a practical, positive sense, most Canadian Jews are lucky, our communities are diverse, full of newcomers and people who have been here generations – we are from all over the world. We can open ourselves up to enjoying a diversity of Jewish customs, practices and ideas that enrich our institutions and celebrations. Further, we can enjoy the diversity of the wider community, which is also intensely rich.
We can be different than those who seek tit-for-tat vengeance. Tempted to fight back during a negative exchange, or to cut someone off in a fit of road-rage? Step back.
Think about that talking donkey. Imagine if your car did that to you! Smile. Be the better person. You have that yetzer hatov, the good inclination, right there. Let it out. Be a blessing.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.