Every year we read Parashat Balak and I am utterly amazed. What a remarkably different approach to a reoccurring. Many have understood Torah as love letters between Hashem and Israel. In fact the focus of Torah is upon the covenant between Israel and their God, and rarely does it concern itself with the internal affairs of other people. Yet this story stars a non-Jew who is described as a wise and powerful seer, and quite ironically he derives all of his power from the God of Israel.
This story begins with the best supporting actor, the Gentile King Balak, who hires a gentile Prophet Bilaam to curse Israel so he can defeat them in battle. Balak tempts, bribes, cajoles, demands and threatens that Bilaam curse Israel. Bilaam on the other hand understands the source of his power and explains that he can neither curse nor bless without first receiving divine permission. When he seeks Hashem though he is told, “Do not curse the people, ki varukh hu, for it is blessed.” So what is God saying about us? Are the Jewish people truly blessed and if so what does that even mean?
The medieval commentator Lekah Tov understands this phrase to mean that we are blessed because of the zekhut avot, the righteous deeds of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We their later descendants benefit from the blessing to this day. But how are we blessed? What is the intrinsic nature of this blessing?
We are blessed with a rich memory that sustains us. As a people we enjoy a continuous identity that goes back to the very earliest layers of human history. From Abraham and Sarah to any Jewish newborn we know where we come from and who we are meant to be. In an age of rootlesseness, in a time of confusion about identity, the Jewish people have the luxury of knowing our beginnings and identifying with our rich and varied history.
We are blessed with a profound way of life. Not only do we have a history that is ancient and continuing, but also we have a way of life that is rich and rewarding. The cycle of Shabbats, holy days and festivals add shape and texture to our weeks and years, allowing us to create precious occasions to cherish and enjoy. The holidays, the mitzvot and the orderliness of our lives allow us to maintain a deep sense of community in the midst of the atomizing affects of modernity.
We are blessed with the task of being messengers of Hashem’s love and justice to a world without hope. Our religious tradition harnesses beautiful ritual for the sake of ethical rigor. The Torah teaches us to care for the sick, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to care for the earth, a message as vital and urgent as the day it was first articulated on Sinai. No less revolutionary today, the notion that all people are God’s image bearers and therefore worth of the respect and dignity continues to transform and elevate the world. We walk in the footsteps of the Jewish Messiah who continues to urge all of humanity out of its probationary state. Ours is the privilege of reiterating that message as we carry it in our personage.
In so many ways we are blessed to be the descendants of those who Balaam saw from a distance in the wilderness. But there is still another way to understand the prophet’s rejoinder. The word barukh may be passive, meaning blessed. But it may also be an active adjective, and in that case it can mean the source of blessing. When we say a berakhah, we are saying that God is generous to us, and then we specify how God’s bounty is manifest in that particular instance.
Using this understanding, we understand Bilaam’s reluctance to curse Israel as a result of seeing them as the source of blessing. Reading the text in that way Bilaam is offering us a really great challenge. Our mission as Jews and those enjoined to the Jewish people is to be a source of blessing, not merely for ourselves, but also for all of humanity. So Bilaam reiterates Hashem’s promise to Abraham, “Blessed are those you bless, and cursed are those you curse.” Our task then is to serve as God’s representatives on earth, as He is the source of blessing for all creation, so we too are to be a source of blessing.
The way we live our lives, then must be measured not only by our ritual observances but also more so by how we embody the ethical mitzvot. By shouldering the burdens that weigh others down, by conducting our lives and our business in honorable and productive fashion, and by embodying patience and compassion in all of our endeavors, we can endeavor to live up to Bilaam’s high expectations. Let’s remember that they were God’s expectations first.