Our fundamental national aptitude, Turning curse into blessing

“Have a replenishing summer” I wished a friend when we parted company earlier this week. She replied “Thank you for the good wishes, but how can anyone feel a spirit of renewal when this summer has revealed one indignity after another, one violent attack to another.”  She concluded, “How can hope float in a world so awash in anger and insecurity?”  Her challenge is, of course, profoundly valid. 

Jerusalem journalist and author Matti Friedman writes that our fundamental national ability is making do. No matter how painful the setback or loss may be, our People’s coping tools impel us forward.  Given today’s most vexing problems – social, racial, and ethnic – perhaps we need more than simply making do.  We need to tap our people’s national aptitude to make do in ways that transform curse into blessing, gloom into joy, agony into song.

A surprising formula for hope in dark times is found within the Torah’s tale of a talking donkey.  Our people’s two founding stories – of Abraham and of the Exodus – are purposefully woven into this sacred fable.  Both Abraham and Bilaam: 1) saddle their own donkeys, 2) bring along two lads shnei na’arav imo. and 3) exhibit the same verb sequence “And Bilaam (Abraham) got up and went, and he went back to his place” vayakom, vayelech, vayaishav.  Similarly, with the Exodus story: 1) Balak and Pharaoh fear the expanding proliferation of Israel, 2) both confess “I have sinned” (Ex. 9:25, Num. 22:34), and 3) rabbinic sages teach that Bilaam began his career (among other sorcerers) as an advisor to Pharaoh (Talmud, Sota 11a). 

What is the purpose of weaving our founding stories into this remote parable? Doing so achieves two purposes.  First, it implants the parable’s essential takeaway lesson of turning curse into blessing into our most enduring identity-shaping narratives.  Second, it conveys that no matter how far we may have wandered into the reaches of Moabite prophecy (Bilaam’s nationality), that fundamental national aptitude to transform gloom into joy remains close at hand. 

Congressman Joseph Kennedy made this point when he visited our community last Shabbat. Given all of our ills and the crisis of faith in our leaders, how can we believe in something better?  By looking to Judaism’s call to responsible action (areivut) that fashions communities of, by, and for, their people.  May this be a week when we mirror the Torah portion’s parable of transforming curse into blessing, helping to warm faith as a soothing balm for a hot summer.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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