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Chukkat - Balak 5780 ~ July 3, 2020

Several years ago, a woman ran into my shul asking me to recite a mishebeyrach prayer for her mother. People were overwhelmed by her rushing onto the bimah in the middle of the silent Amidah to make such a request. They were upset by her audacity to interrupt my davening. They were equally upset that this woman took them away from their own davening and could not wait to make such a request until everyone had finished their own personal prayers.

She turned to me and said, “Rabbi, I need you to stop what you are doing and include my mother now in a prayer. She has just been rushed to the hospital in another state, and I do not know what else to do but to ask you to offer a prayer for her. People tell me that your prayers are answered, so it is the only thing I can think of doing for my mother at this moment.”

A few years later, on Kol Nidrei night, just prior to services a member ran up to me and asked me if I could recite a mishebeyrach for a special friend’s wife prior to services. Others heard and shook their head wondering how an individual could make such a request as I was preparing to begin services on the holiest of nights. We walked up to the ark and just as I recited the mishebeyrach prayer for the mother, I turned and offered that prayer for that special friend. As I asked for her name, the man turned to me and said “Raisa Gorbachev.” As I included her name, the man wept. The next morning Raisa passed away…but that moment touched me greatly. (It touched Mikhail Gorbachev as well.)

Requesting words to be recited for others is something that is a part of our Torah reading for this Shabbat. It is something we do all the time, be it a prayer for wellbeing, a prayer in remembrance, or a prayer of thanksgiving. But how often would we make a different request – that we ask that a curse be placed upon an individual. Unfortunately, we are living in a time when such words or requests seem to be on the lips of many people. Such is the case in our Torah reading for this Shabbat.

Our Torah portion introduces to us Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet. We are told by a leader of one of the nation states, Balaak, that whomever Balaam offered a blessing for would be blessed, and whomever he cursed would be cursed. Balaak, king of Moab, appeals to the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelite nation, who were approaching his territory. As we read through the story, Balaam first refuses, but then agrees, but with one condition: he can only follow what G-d permits him to do. As the story progresses, we learn that despite Balaak’s insistence that Balaam curses the Israelites, the curses came out as blessings.

In our Etz Hayim Chumash the following commentary upon Balaak reflects a truth in our own world today: “Why did Balak hire Balaam to bless his own people rather than to curse Israel (since “whom you bless is blessed indeed,” v.6)? He was so consumed by hatred that he forgot about his people’s needs and could think only about hurting his enemy. (Beit Ramah)”

For American Jews this week we understand this question in so many different avenues. In St. Louis, the question is being raised about removing the statue of the city’s namesake, King Louis IX, because of his anti-Semitism. We wonder about the next steps in Israel with regard to the West Bank, annexation, and the Palestinian question. At what point does the hatred go away and curses turn into blessings for the region. Needless to say, as we celebrate July 4th, too many questions abound, not only for the Jewish world, but for our democracy in general. How do our American leaders, groups and leaders move away from the negative to create positive? It’s not as simple as someone running up to the bimah and the aron hakodesh, where the Torot are housed to offer a prayer. And yet, it might be the best place to start.

Balaak, king of Moab did not understand the meaning of the curses turned into blessings. He was incensed by the outcome. (I’m certain we can name individuals who have that same sentiment regarding events in our lives and in our world.) But Balaam, the prophet, who came from Petor, has been characterized by Rashi, as a “petor,” one who was able to solve issues surrounding individuals and nations. He did do with the guidance and inspiration of G-d. He magically changed words of curse into blessing as he uttered them.

As we begin to celebrate the arrival of summer and the 4th of July, perhaps Balaam understood that to solve the issues that we face, we must find the way to turn the vehicle of curses into blessings…for then we can use the words he used : “Ma Tovu” “how good it is,” which is what G-d expressed when the world was created “v’hinei tov me-od,” “and behold it was very good.” May we be able to say that about our own situations and about our world in the near future.

Shabbat shalom and happy 4th of July.

Rabbi K



Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782