Balak 5764 — Blessings and Curses

In every form of struggle, whether it’s war, business, or sports, we look to have some kind of special advantage over our opponents.  Some athletes take steroids, despite the risks, because they hope it will give them a little edge over their opponents.  When I worked in high-tech, the question the venture capitalists always wanted you to be able to answer is “what is your sustainable, unfair, competitive advantage”—something that really stacks the deck in your favor.  Israel’s ultimate edge that helps hold radical Islamic countries at bay is, of course, the atom bomb.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we are told the story of Balak’s struggle with Israel.  Balak, son of Tzipor, was the king of Moabites.  He too was looking for a way to get an edge in his struggle against Israel.  He was afraid that he was no match for the Israelites.  He thought he had found his edge in Balaam, son of Beor.  Balaam was a prophet.  He was not Jewish—but God spoke to and through him nonetheless.  Balak wanted to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balak told Balaam “ki yadati et asher t’varach m’vorach, va’asher taor yoar,” for I know that what you bless, is blessed, and that which you curse is cursed. 

Balak’s brilliant plan to use Balaam as a secret weapon backfires and blows up in his face.  Instead of curses, when Balaam turns his attention to Israel, out of his mouth come blessings.  In fact, one of the blessings to come out of Balaam’s mouth is the blessing that we have inscribed over the front doors of our synagogue: “mah tovu ohelecha Yakov, how goodly are thy tents, O Jacob!”  Balak is furious when Balaam starts praising Israel.  He says “meh asita li!”  “What have you done to me?!”  I hired you to curse my enemies, and here you are blessing them!  In his first blessing Balaam praised how numerous Israel was; so Balak figured if he took Balaam somewhere he couldn’t see the whole group, maybe he could then drum up a curse instead of a blessing.  But that brilliant scheme doesn’t work either.  After two failures, Balak has second thoughts, and tells Balaam, well, keep your mouth shut, if you can’t curse them, at least don’t bless them.  But Balak is so intent on cursing Israel, that he decides to try a third time.  Balak appears to have in mind the old saying, “m’shaneh makom, m’shaneh mazal,” change your place, change your luck.  He tells Balaam we’re going somewhere else, maybe God will let you curse these people from another spot.  But that strategy also fails.  Yet a third time, instead of curses, out come more blessings.  Balak sends Balaam away, disgusted.

When cursing Israel didn’t work, Balak could have tried a different tack.  Instead of worrying about cursing Israel, he could have asked Balaam for a blessing—after all, the verse reads, “asher t’varach m’vorach,” what you bless is blessed.  But he doesn’t.  Why not?  The Beit Ramah says it’s because Balak was so consumed by hatred that he forgot about his own people’s needs and could only think about hurting his enemy.

One look at the Middle East, and we see that this attitude of being consumed by hatred for your enemy is, sadly, still alive and well.  The Palestinians are so intent on cursing Israel, that they have no time to seek blessings for themselves.  If they were to put a fraction of the effort they expend on trying to destroy Israel into building up Palestine, they could be living in a Garden of Eden. 

The Palestinians are not stupid—there are universities in Gaza and the West Bank.  Palestinians who emigrate to other countries often manage to become successful professionals.  But instead of spending energy and effort on creating their own infrastructure and economy, they prefer to try and destroy Israel’s.  They protest a fence that keeps them out from working minimum wage jobs in Israel; why don’t they build businesses and establish an economy on their side of the fence?  The Europeans who are so pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli would likely be a ready market.

What so inflames Balak in our Torah portion, and the Palestinians today, is envy.  Balak envies (and fears) the accomplishments of the Israelites, and wants to slow them down.  The Palestinians envy the accomplishments of Israel, the land that Israel is sitting on.  They want it all for themselves.

Envy is one of the most common of emotions.  We are all subject to it, some to a greater degree, some lesser. 

In Madregat HaAdam, R. Yosef Horowitz teaches that people are unhappy because everyone is busy thinking about what the other guy has; and that guy is busy thinking about what someone else has.  No one actually reaches their desires, because they are always so busy comparing themselves to someone else who has a little more.  This trait of being busy thinking about what the other guy has is what we might call the tendency to want to “keep up with the Jones’s.”  The stress of a life of keeping up with the Jones’s is something that we often thinks dates to the 1950s or 60s—yet R. Horowitz wrote his words 150 years ago, and it was nothing new then.  Being focused on what the other guy has is one of the most ancient of problems—hence “do not covet” is one of the ten commandments.

I have to admit, that in general, Canadians do not seem to be as consumed by envy as Americans—especially Americans living in Los Angeles.  Our parking lot is not as filled with SUVs on steroids as the synagogue we used to attend in LA.  But the truth is, as pointed out in Orchot haTzaddikim, the Ways of the Righteous, that no one escapes it.  According to Orchot haTzaddikim, “For we see all men being pulled one after the other.”  I may not be consumed by envy, but I’m not immune from feeling a touch of it—maybe when a colleague gets a “dream pulpit” that pays a very big salary right on the beach in Miami, or maybe wishing I could afford to fly myself around in a fancier airplane.  And it is exactly that sentiment which can lead to unhappiness—losing sight of all the blessings in your own life, and instead comparing yourself to someone else who seems to have more.  Just as R. Horowitz points out, the other guy—whether the rabbi with the dream pulpit, or the fellow flying around in a fancy plane—has his eye on someone with yet a better job, or a better plane.

But that kind of envy—the mild envy we all feel on occasion—is bush league compared to the kind of envy that we see in Balak, and in the Palestinians.  It’s one thing to have the sort of envy which inspires you to work a little harder, or extend yourself a little more to get a little more.  But envy can go to a much deeper level: it can lead to the most un-generous of all forms of envy, the form where you don’t care about getting more for yourself, as long as the other guy doesn’t have more than you do.  When people get wrapped up in this kind of pathological envy, they become like Balak, so focused on cursing the other party they forget about their own self-interest.  That is why we have a saying, “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” 

The Palestinians are stuck in this kind of pathological envy.  They are literally cutting off their noses—and blowing themselves up—to spite the Israelis.  They are more concerned with damaging Israel than with building up Palestine.

The Palestinians are an extreme case, but what they are doing is very much in keeping with human nature.

The historians Will and Ariel Durant are best known for their 11-volume magnum opus “The Story of Civilization.”  Towards the end of their careers, after a lifetime of studying history, they wrote a gem of a little book called “The Lessons of History.”  In the Lessons of History, the Durants looked back on history to see what kind of trends and universals they could discern.  They affirmed that envy is something that is always with us, and in fact the very virulent form of envy—the kind that will lead to people becoming so obsessed with cursing others that they will do it overlooking possible blessings to themselves—inevitably recurs.

The Durants point out that there is unequal division of ability in a population, and that this inevitably leads to an unequal distribution of wealth.  Over time the unequal distribution of wealth becomes more and more severe, as the rich give more education and capital to their children.  Eventually, say the Durants, one of two things happen.  You either get a redistribution of wealth through legislation, or a redistribution of poverty through revolution.  Either the wealthy share the wealth, as is the case here in Canada, and in most of the Western world, at least today—or you get a revolution, as happened in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917.  Revolts generally do not share the wealth—they destroy wealth, and leave everyone equally poor.

What’s happening today in Israel is the Palestinians are revolting, and trying to destroy Israel—and make the Israelis just as poor as the Palestinians.  It would serve both sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict to remember that the better outcome will result from legislation—and negotiation—than from revolution and war.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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