Our Shabbat service began this morning, as it always does, with words spoken by a Moabite sorcerer, sent by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites.

How bizarre is that?

This week’s Torah portion is parashat Balak, and as the story of the sorcerer, Bilam, unfolds, we learn that every time he prepared to curse the people of Israel, ‘the Eternal One put a word in Bilam’s mouth’ (Numbers 23:5;16), and he blessed them instead. At King Balak’s command, Bilam tried four times – but to no avail. On the third attempt, he proclaimed (Num.24:5):

Mah-tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishknotecha Yisrael.

How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.

So: blessings instead of curses. Does that make the fact that we quote those words – the utterance of that Moabite sorcerer – as we open our sacred service, any less bizarre?

In some synagogues, Bilam’s blessing, Mah-tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishknotecha Yisrael, can also be found adorning the front gates or the doors of the sanctuary.

Why? Perhaps, it’s a case of wish fulfilment: the other nations are forever cursing us – if only they would bless us instead! And so, we hang onto the words of blessing bestowed on us by others, from Bilam until now. We shrink with fear from the anti-Semites, but how we adore and acclaim the philo-Semites! Here in Brighton and Hove, the Jewish community is even ‘blessed’ with one particular, outspoken lover of Jews in our midst…

But deep down, don’t we know that however much other people bless us, it doesn’t really make any difference to our feelings of fear and insecurity as a people? One of the possible reasons for this is because for millennium the curses have been particularly effective. Those who have cursed us have translated their words of hatred into deeds. Since the time of the Pharaoh ‘who didn’t know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8), through Balak, King of Moab, until now, other people have feared and reviled our people – and then, persecuted and killed us, when fear and loathing gained the upper hand.

No wonder, so many of us cling to our fellow Jews for security and live in tightknit communities – both in the diaspora and in Israel. No wonder, so many others of us, flee their Jewish identity, seeking refuge in anonymity. No wonder, so many Jews seek out the non-Jews who bless us and tell us how wonderful we are:

Mah-tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishknotecha Yisrael.

How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.

No wonder, so many of us seek solace in a recitation of our achievements as a people, taking pride in proclaiming the accomplishments of each and every Jew – even going so far as to claim the accomplishments of those individuals, who are not Jewish according to the halachah – Jewish law – or, who don’t consider themselves to be Jewish, or, don’t live as Jews – or, have converted to another religion. These shining stars may not be counted in an Orthodox minyan, but they certainly count when it comes to proving to ourselves how brilliant we are.

Of course, one could say, we have been set up for all this. The Torah tells us that God has singled us out for blessing. The narrative in this week’s portion makes it abundantly clear that Bilam the sorcerer was manipulated by the Eternal One and so forced to bless the Israelites, whom God blesses (Num. 23:20). So: the Israelites; a people blessed by God – from the outset. If we go right back to the beginning of the story of our people as recounted in the Torah, we read in parashat Leich L’cha – at Genesis chapter 12 (:1-3):

The Eternal One said to Avram: ‘Leich L’cha – Go for yourself from your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. / I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great; then be a blessing. / I will bless those that bless you and those that curse you, I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’

If we examine these verses a little more closely, it seems that being cursed by others is inextricably entangled with being blessed by God. To be singled out for blessing is also to be singled out for curse – but, ultimately blessing will triumph over curse because of a destiny that is greater than our possession of a piece of land: ‘… in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’

Now you don’t have to believe any of this. But even if you don’t – and many Jews reject the notion that our people has a singular and particular destiny for the benefit of humanity – many others do believe it: and so, they either bless us or curse us. You know the quip: ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ As Bilam puts it more lyrically (Num. 23:9):

From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: Lo, it is a people that dwells alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.

So what are we to do with this legacy? A clue to an answer this question lies buried in those verses from Genesis chapter 12 (:2):

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great; then be a blessing – vehyeih b’rachah.

Then be a blessing’ – vehyeih b’rachah: the Eternal One made all those fantastical promises – but ultimately, it came down to this. Avram faced a challenge: Leich L’cha – ‘Go for yourself… then be a blessing’ – and he chose to go: Va-yeilech Avram – ‘So Avram went’ (Gen. 12:4).

The Torah also tells us: Va-yikach Avram – that Avram ‘took’ his wife, Sarai and his nephew Lot, and their whole household, as well as some people from Haran, asher-asu – ‘whom he had made’ (12:5): whom he had converted, according to the 11th century French commentator, Rashi; whom he had bought, according to the 12th century Spanish commentator, Ibn Ezra. However the word, ‘made’ is interpreted, it looks as if no one, apart from Avram, had any choice in the matter.

Nevertheless, another word suggests otherwise: referring to the inhabitants of Haran, ‘whom he had made’, the Hebrew text uses the word, nefesh. Reflecting the influence of Greek philosophy, nefesh later came to mean ‘soul’. However, in the biblical context, the translation ‘being’ is more appropriate. And so, in the creation narratives at Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we read that every human being and every animal is a ‘living being’ – nefesh chayyah (Gen. 1:24; 30; 2:19). It follows that we might understand from the reference to nefesh in the context of leaving Haran, that like, Avram, each person, each an individual ‘being’, made a choice to leave and to respond to the call: Leich l’cha – Go for yourself…. vehyeih b’rachah – then be a blessing.’

Leich l’cha – or, L’chi lach in the feminine form – ‘Go for yourself’ … vehyeih b’rachah – ‘then be a blessing’. We can spend a lot of time being disturbed and preoccupied with the burden of our people’s destiny and our mixed experience of blessings and curses. We can see ourselves as passive recipients of external forces, angelic or demonic. We can retreat into our Jewish enclaves or flee into the wide world beyond, but ultimately, each one of us is addressed by this imperative. The power to bless and to curse is not simply beyond us – a force we are subjected to. Rather, it is a power and a potential within each and every one of us. And so, each one of us is called upon to be a blessing for ourselves, for the sake of our people and for the sake of humanity:

… in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of pre-war German Jewry, found a very creative way of responding to Jewish destiny. He declared:[1]

Every people is a question which God addresses to humanity; and every people… must answer for its own sake and for the sake of humanity…

God questions humanity through the peoples. With the imperatives of Leich L’cha in mind, we might add that what is true of peoples is also true of each and every human being: Every person is a question which God addresses to humanity; and every person must answer for their own sake and for the sake of humanity. God questions humanity through every human being. May each one of us find our own ways of responding, and being a blessing for ourselves and for others. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Ve’rei’ut

22nd June 2013 – 14th Tammuz 5773

[1] Leo Baeck, This People Israel (The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1965), p. 402.