3 Cheshvan 5781 / Wednesday, October 21, 2020 | Torah Reading: Noach
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Balak: Anatomy of a Curse    

Balak: Anatomy of a Curse

We might not fear physical threats, but we certainly must be concerned about a world that would deny us the right to express our Jewish souls.


Cursing a person is a vicious act. Cursing a nation reflects a sickness. I am writing these words as we are traveling through the villages of Poland. Less than seventy years ago Nazi Germany, with the direct help of the Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others, perpetrated the most hideous crimes ever committed against the Jewish people and mankind. And while these crimes took place, the rest of the “civilized” world stood by silently.
In all honesty, as residents of free and open society, it’s almost impossible for us to picture this sort of insane hatred. The discussion of the nature of Anti-Semitism is beyond the parameters of this article. What I would like to discuss is the nature of the curse that almost took place as recounted in this week’s Torah reading. What transpired and how might it have affected us had it taken effect?
To answer these questions we can turn to a famous Chassidic insight based on a comment written by Tosefot, a group of great Talmudic scholars in the Middle ages. These ideas can provide us with an important insight on the intent of Bilaam, the major character in our reading, when he attempted to curse the Jewish people.
This week we read how Balak, the King of Midian, was in a state of panic as the Jewish people travelled towards the land of Israel. Fearing for himself and his country, his plan was to hire the greatest spiritual non-Jewish figure of the time, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people thereby curtailing their possibilities of victory. Bilaam jumped at the opportunity, hoping to cause maximum damage. In fact, the Talmud informs us that had Bilaam been successful he might have been able to wipe out the Jewish people, Heaven forbid. How could he have accomplished this terrible plan? According to the Talmud there is a moment every day when Hashem’s anger comes to full expression. Bilaam knew that moment and had he cursed us during that moment the damage would have been horrific.
The Talmud indicates that this moment was, in fact, just a fraction of a second. What the commentators called Tosefot wonder is what type of curse could have been perpetrated that would have been so devastating? To this they answer that Bilaam could have said the Hebrew word “Kalaim”. The simple meaning of this word means “finish them off”. Total devastation, Heaven forbid. We are aware that there were times, particularly the Holocaust, that reflected periods of Divine anger and the subsequent destruction.
There is a fascinating insight of the Chassidic masters which reflects a different type of destruction, one possibly more relevant to us today. The word mentioned above is written with the Hebrew letters “Kaf-Lamed-Mem”. What is fascinating is that these are the exact same letters as the word “Melech”-“King” only in the opposite order (Mem-Lamed-Kaf). Hebrew words are packed with meaning and the fact that “Kalaim” (finish them off) and “Melech” (King) are similar has a vital lesson for us.
Different Hebrew letters symbolize certain words and concepts. According to the Chassidic masters the letter “Mem” stands for “Moach”-the mind. “Lamed” represents the “Lev”-the heart, while the “Kaf”-the “Kaved”-the liver, often representing the source of physical activity. The Jewish King was called upon to set an example of what true service of Hashem was. In order to do this, his spiritual make-up needed to reflect how the Torah wants us to live. The “Mem”-“Moach”-“Mind” was on top, followed by “Lamed”-“Lev”-“Heart” and lastly “Kaf”-“Kaved”-“Liver”. The mind controlled his actions providing him the clarity of doing what the Torah dictates. Next was his rich emotional world, for example, King David’s Psalms. Finally, his physical world was essential and vibrant but clearly was at the bottom of his list of priorities. The very word for King in Hebrew encapsulates the essence of what a Jewish king is supposed to be.
Conversely Bilaam wanted to curse us with the word which represented the opposite state of being. Hoping to wipe out the unique Jewish character, he wanted to turn our ideal world upside-down. He desired to affect a change through his curse that would cause us to live a world of “Kaf”-“Kaved”-“Liver, that our physical world should be primary. After that we have our unchecked emotional world, our “Lamed”-“Lev”-“Heart” and last and least, according to Bilaam’s attempted curse, was “Mem”-“Moach”-“Mind”. He knew that the greatest curse he could perpetrate was causing the Jewish people to live a life of emptiness, where physicality reigns supreme.
One way our enemies have tried to destroy us is through physical annihilation. The other is through spiritual degeneration. Had Bilaam been successful the noble Jewish people would have suffered the curse of “finish them off” through pogroms and holocausts. However we also would have been devastated by lives of meaninglessness.
Through Hashem’s kindness we were saved from being wiped out physically and spiritually. For our times, although we don’t fear the physical threats of a Holocaust, we still need to be concerned about the effects of a world that would deny us the nobility and uniqueness of the Jewish soul. Ultimately, Bilaam was unsuccessful in his attempt to uproot that greatness. May Hashem help us grow in our appreciation of the special gifts and necessary hierarchy of the internal world of every one of us.

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