SALT - Thursday, 15 Tammuz 5778 - June 28, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            In Bilam’s second failed attempt to curse Benei Yisrael, he proclaimed to Balak, “Hinei vareikh lakachti, u-veireikh ve-lo ashivena” (23:20), which Ibn Ezra translates to mean, “Behold, I have received a blessing; He has blessed, and I shall not revoke it.”  Bilam told Balak that God has given him a blessing to pronounce upon Benei Yisrael, and so he is compelled to do so.
Rashi explains in a slightly different fashion, interpreting the first phrase of this verse to mean, “Behold I have received [an instruction] to bless.”  According to Rashi, the word “vareikh” must be understood as a verb, rather than a noun.  Thus, when Bilam speaks here of having “received” something, it must mean that he has received God’s instruction to bless Benei Yisrael, in spite of Balak’s having commissioned him to curse them.  This is also the approach taken by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who notes that the word “lekach” often means “teaching” or “instruction,” as in the famous verse in Mishlei (4:2), “Ki lekach tov natati lakhem” (“For I have given you sound instruction”).  The word “lakachti” used here by Bilam, then, refers to a mission that Bilam was instructed to fulfill.  He was charged with the mission of blessing Benei Yisrael, and he was therefore dutybound to deny Balak’s wishes and bless the nation he was commissioned to curse.
            Bilam’s pronouncement in this verse may perhaps be viewed as expressing the charge that each and every one of us has received.  We, too, are given the “mission” to “bless” our fellowman, to look upon people kindly and positively, and to sincerely wish for their good fortune.  Very often, we hear the voice of “Balak,” either in our own minds or from other people, summoning us to “curse” – to dislike, to suspect, to condemn and to resent.  That voice convinces us, as Balak convinced Bilam, that we need to hate somebody because he or she poses a threat that must be protected against through hostility.  And we, like Bilam, are all too eager to comply.  There is a certain thrill and satisfaction we receive by “cursing,” by casting somebody as a dangerous threat and rushing to condemn, malign and despise that individual.  But as Balak told Bilam, “For I will bestow upon you great honor” (22:17).  The origin and source of this passionate longing to “curse” is our own ego, the desire to feel important and superior.  Perceiving a person or group of people as a dangerous threat that we need to protect against allows us to perceive ourselves as heroes, as great defenders.  It gives us a holy mission to fulfill, thus giving us a false sense of satisfaction and self-importance.
            But if we stop for a moment, pausing to reflect upon the word of God, as Bilam was forced to do, we will realize that our mission is to do just the opposite.  We will realize that “hinei vareikh lakachti,” that our mission, in all but rare, exceptional cases, is not to condemn, but to compliment.  We are to bless, not curse.  We should be identifying what is admirable and praiseworthy about other people, not what is lacking and deficient about them.  Sure, it feels better to “curse” than to “bless”; to criticize and find fault, than to compliment and admire.  But our “mission” is precisely to find and respect all that is good about others, not to find and dislike the bad.  We must respond very cautiously to the calls from the various “Balaks” to dislike and oppose other people.  While there are, of course, individuals and movements that indeed pose a danger that demands action, very often, the perceived threat is not real.  In most instances, our “mission” is to admire and respect, to find what is praiseworthy about our fellow and learn from his or her positive qualities.