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The Power of a Curse

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, describes how Balak, King of Moab, tries to destroy the fledgling nation of Israel. The recorded event takes place just prior to the Jews entering their promised homeland. He knew Israel had just defeated the two most powerful armies in the region, Sichon, King of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan. In light of that fact, one might have thought Balak would allow the Jewish nation to traverse its highway on its way to Canaan. Moshe had offered the other kings just that. Israel would stay on the main highway and pay for any food and water they consumed.

There was another fact mitigating against war with the nation of Israel. Balak and many in the nation of Moab were relatives of the Jews. His ancestor and patriarch of his nation was none other than, Lot, nephew of Avraham. The Jews had already been forewarned about making an offensive assault on Moab and conquering their land. Had the event of this week’s Torah reading not occurred, the nation of Moab would have had the great fortune to reap the benefits that would accrue living next door their cousins, the nation of Israel.

Rather than send his army in a direct and futile attack against the Jewish forces, Balak took a completely different approach. He hired the prophet, Bilaam, to curse the nation of Israel. What was he thinking? Did he believe human curses, negative verbal utterances, would do what weapons couldn’t do?  Could his words alter reality?  Was Balak out of his mind?

The rational answer is to know that human utterances have no power to change any aspect of objective reality. Man is the product of the laws of nature. His unique soul, created in the image of God, enables him to understand the forces of nature that govern the natural order. This knowledge gives him the fantastic ability to use and manipulate the laws of nature. This knowledge is responsible for all human progress in technology and science affording every person a better more satisfying way of life.

However, intelligent people soon realize the limitations of human capabilities as well.  Man cannot exercise supernatural powers to defy the laws of nature or to contradict them. No man can perform a miracle or recite a mantra that can produce objective consequences. Balak, King of Moab, was no fool. He understood this point very well. Why did he hire Bilaam to curse the nation of Israel? Why did God tell Bilaam not to curse Israel? Let him say whatever he wants. His words will have no affect and that lesson will go a long way in dispelling this erroneous notion. Our Torah is based on the deepest understanding of the human psyche. It prohibits us from cursing a fellow Jew. If words have no power, why the prohibition?

The reason a curse has power is because the human psyche is fragile. We notice in others, more importantly we notice with ourselves, that at times people are very sensitive to the words of others. This is particularly true if you idolize the speaker, or if the speaker is charismatic or possesses an imposing personality. If someone like that should happen to tell a highly impressionable person something negative like, “You will never succeed; you will never amount to anything,” the utterance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of our greatest internal challenges is to overcome the need for social acceptance. This process is not easy. On one hand man by nature is insecure and dependent while and on the other man is a social creature enjoying the company and close relationship with other members of his species.

Balak sought to exploit this human weakness. He hired a highly respected personality, the prophet Bilaam, to curse the Jews. As a whole, the Jewish people demonstrated emotional weakness. They were slaves for over 200 years. Newly freed, they lived alone in the dessert as outcasts for the last 38 years. Not only were they not accepted by other nations, they were beset by them from the moment they left Egypt. Often the Jews quarreled amongst themselves, rebelling even against their God appointed leaders. Moshe, their leader, rebuked them many times for being stiff-necked and ungrateful. They suffered death by plagues, earthquake, inter-tribal killings, and unnatural causes too. In short, they felt undeserving of having their own homeland. Topping things off, they had just sustained the death of two of their most revered leaders, Miriam the prophetess and Aaron the High Priest. Balak assumed these Jews were psychologically demoralized. Thus they were ripe and vulnerable to the destruction that would come from welled formulated curses.

Had not God interceded and converted Bilaam’s intended curses into blessings, the curses would have had their desired outcome. They would have been effective not because they had the power to alter reality but because people’s psyches were so susceptible to that kind of influence. For this reason charlatans of the past have been able to manipulate masses of people; and due to this phenomenon of the human psyche, charlatans will always exist.

Jews have no built in immunity to this failing.  But what did God tell Bilaam say in praise of the Jewish religion? “For there is no divination in Jacob, and no sorcery in Israel.” (Bamidbar 23:23).

In the merit of adhering to God’s blessing, may He continue His watchfulness and protection over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Rabbi Reuven Mann for sharing his insights and many of the ideas expressed here on parshat Balak.