Talking Donkey and Blessings and Curses

Parshat Balak

Numbers 22:2 -25:9

Clarity in communication matters.  In our world when we are so plugged in the pace of our communications can trip us up at times.  Our words fly by.  We tweet in 140 characters or less.  We post our status on Facebook with pithy and quick wit.  We text in shorthand saving effort and money. And our emails must be clear because we can convey the wrong tone with just the wrong size font or capital letters! Since we can’t hear the tone on the screen we have to be sure from other cues and clues. 

 There is so much to pay attention to and so many nuances.  It is true when we communicate face to face as well.  We look into each others eyes and examine them for truth-telling. We look to the face and body language to help us understand the conversation.   It is not just the words we use but the context too.  And if we want to convey a positive message and a message that is trusted our words and facial expressions should match.

 This week’s portion, Balak, is all about communication.  It is about words and who is doing the talking and the words that are used!  There is a donkey who talks and sees visions.  There is a non-Jewish wizard and prophet who talks with our God and who is paid to deliver curses upon the Israelites only to deliver blessings instead. The words of warning and blessing and prophecy are the themes that run through this week’s portion.

Bala’am the wizard and prophet is hired by the King of Moab to curse the Israelites. The king has seen the Israelites defeat the nations of Sichon and Og and now Balak, the king of the Moabites, fears the Israelites encamped on his border.  The Israelites are readying to cross into the Promised Land.  Balak wants Bala’am of Be’or to come and use his words and his magic powers to finish the Israelites by his curses.  This is to be a communication of condemnation.  And yet each curse turns to blessing.  “How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your tabernacles O Israel” (Numbers 24:5) says Bala’am.

 One of our great Torah commentators, Ovadiah Seforno asks why doesn’t the King of the Moabites ask to have his nation blessed rather than cursed?  Why not use good and clear communication to uplift rather than words that will wreak havoc? Why not have his nation protected and why since Bala’am couldn’t exactly curse the Children of Israel, why didn’t Balak have Bala’am the wizard and prophet bless Moab?

 Seforno answers that Bala’am’s magic powers were limited just to the modality of curses. He is despised in Jewish tradition because his mode of communication is to tear down rather than build up. His words are limited.  He could not bless. He could only take advantage of God’s anger and manipulate those moments into communications of consequence. All he was able to do was curse.

 And that is exactly what he tries to do but God intervenes and turns the Bala’am’s curses into blessings of the Israelites, foiling Balak’s plan and Bala’am’s communications!

 For all of us who each day have to communicate with the world learn from this and when we are tempted to use our words to curse, or to tear down—let’s try and turn it around to build someone or some group up with blessing.  Build up and enhance with our communications.  This builds strength and hope.  And the world could use a little more of both!

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