Balak, the King of Moab, is scared stiff of the Jewish People. He reaches out to the prophet, Balaam, a master of the dark arts [Bemidbar 22:6]: “Come, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed”. According to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7a], Balaam was meant to use his prophetic skills in order to identify the one instant during the day during which G-d’s anger flares and thus to turn Him against His people.
With all due respect, the whole concept of Balaam cursing the Jewish People is baffling. Did Balaam really have the power to force G-d’s Divine Hand against His Own Will, as it were? Why should Balaam’s curses have any effect whatsoever? G-d Himself tells Balaam [Bemidbar 22:12] “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed”. The Jewish People cannot be cursed. Cursing the Jews is like calling an acid a base. Another question: Each time Balaam tries to curse the Jewish People, G-d forces him instead to bless them. Why do the Jewish People need Balaam’s blessing? This question is reinforced if we note that the entire episode occurs without the knowledge of the Jewish People. The first time that the Israelite on the street hears that something is going on is when he hears [Bemidbar 31:8] that their soldiers killed Balaam during the war against Midian. They only hear what Balaam did during the last week of Moshe’s life [Devarim 23:5-6]: “[The Moabites] hired Balaam… to curse you. But G-d refused to heed Balaam; instead, G-d turned the curse into a blessing for you, for G-d loves you”. Why does G-d need to reveal to them what transpired?
Nechama Leibowitz suggests that G-d’s turning Balaam’s curses into blessings had a useful purpose: Had Balaam been successful, the surrounding nations might have had the courage to go to battle with Israel. “But when they heard how G-d had turned [his curses] into blessings, the would then realize Who was Master – and would lose all desire to fight His people.” It was not that Balaam’s words carried any power but, rather, that Balaam, the most powerful prophet on earth, was powerless to speak in the Face of G-d. This would strike fear in the hearts of Israel’s would-be enemies.
In this essay, we take a closer look into the metaphysical mechanics of cursing and blessing. How does a blessing work? Some blessings are trivial to understand. When G-d promises to bless our crops [Devarim 28:8], it means that He will cause them to be bountiful. When He curses our crops, they wither. But what happens when one human blesses – or curses – his fellow man? Can certain words somehow push metaphysical buttons? By uttering these words, can I cause my foe to fall off of a ledge or my friend to win the lottery? The Torah answers this question clearly, offering an unequivocal definition of “blessing” and “curse” [Devarim 11:2628]: “Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, if you will heed the commandments of G-d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of G-d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.” One of the key tenets of Judaism is that man has complete freedom of choice. He is rewarded for his good choices and punished for his poor ones. His reward might not come immediately, it might not even come in this world, but come it will. A person who performs only good deeds can never be punished just as a person who does only evil can never be rewarded. G-d does not punish nor reward without justification. The question is, then, how can a blessing work if our subject is underserving? The answer is that it can’t. A blessing or a curse does not determine whether a person will be rewarded or punished, it merely determines how.
To clarify this point, we take a closer look at the story of how our forefather, Jacob, expropriated the blessing of his brother, Esau. Isaac wants to bless Esau and so he sends him to kill him a deer and make him a burger, apparently to get him into the right mood. Rebecca overhears her husband’s plans and she sets out to foil the plot. She dresses Jacob in Esau’s favourite clothing, places goat’s wool over his arms, cooks up the burger-to-end-all-burgers, and then sends Jacob to his father. Isaac, who is apparently too old to notice that “Esau” is actually Jacob wearing goat’s wool, gives Esau’s blessings to Jacob. This story is so often grossly misunderstood because of the misconception that Isaac can bless only one of his two sons, either Jacob or Esau, but not both of them. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches otherwise, noting that before Jacob flees home to escape Esau’s wrath, Isaac explicitly blesses him. Now, Esau and Jacob are two very different people [Bereishit 25:27]: “Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was a pure man, dwelling in tents”. As they are two very different people, teaches Rabbi Sacks, they were given two very different blessings. Isaac blesses Esau with wealth [Bereishit 27:28] “Of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth” and with power [Bereishit 27:29] – “Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you”. He blesses Jacob with children [Bereishit 28:3] “May G-d bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples.” and with land [Bereishit 28:4] “that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which G-d gave to Abraham”. Isaac felt that Jacob, as a cerebral sort of guy, did not need wealth or power. If Jacob wanted a burger, he wouldn’t go hunting – he would go down to the store and buy one. Rebecca disagreed with her husband’s conclusion: Jacob needed financial and political security in order to raise his family. Isaac could not relegate wealth and power only to Esau – Jacob needed it, too. But while Isaac and Rebecca disagreed on the content of the blessings that each son received, the blessings would come to fruition only if their sons were deserving.
With the mechanical principles of blessing and cursing in hand, we can now return to Balaam. Balaam did not have the power to force a curse where a blessing was due. What he could do was to determine the kind of curse that would befall the Jewish People were they to sin. This is why it was so critical that G-d convert Balaam’s curses into blessings. Had Balaam been told to bless the Jewish People, his blessings would have been tepid: May you not fall off a ledge. Sourcing Balaam’s blessings in his own dark visceral hatred meant that his blessings would be that much stronger. Imagine the worst thing you could possibly say to your worst enemy and now tell him the exact opposite of what you had intended on saying. Balaam’s blessings are so powerful that one of them [Bemidbar 24:5] “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” is found on the entrance of many synagogues. The Jewish People did not need to know that Balaam wanted to curse them. Over the years, all too many people have done that sort of thing. The Jewish People did not need to know that G-d protected them from Balaam’s curse. No news here, either. We know that the Protector of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers. What they did need to know was that G-d had taken the darkest metaphysical force in the universe and had bent it in a way that they would forever benefit from it. He did this for one reason and for one reason alone [Devarim 23:6]: “Because G-d loves you”. You will determine whether you will be rewarded or punished. But if you do merit reward, then you will receive blessings beyond your imagination.
Last week, we were blessed with a grand-daughter, Ariel Peli’ah (Wonder). My son explained the source of her name: “We have been overcome by a feeling of the wonder of G-d’s Hand – how everything comes from heaven, how G-d sends His blessings at the perfect time, in the perfect way and with the perfect measure is beyond human comprehension.”
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.
 Nechama lived in Israel in the previous century. She irreversibly changed the way that Tanach is studied by elucidating entire episodes rather than small snippets.
 See the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [106a].
 Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of England between 1991-2013. He is one of the greatest philosophers and spokesmen of our generation.