D’var Torah: How a curse turned into an enduring blessing

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

Parshat Balak tells the story of the prophet Bilam who was hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Despite his efforts and warnings by talking donkeys, waking dreams and even angels of God that he should not go ahead with this mission, Bilam persists.  In the end, instead of curses, when he speaks he recites blessings. One of those blessings includes the well known passage found in the daily morning Jewish prayer liturgy, “How lovely are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.”  

Lest one think that Bilam was an amateur who found himself in over his head, the rabbis of the Talmud teach that this was not the case.  In the rabbinic text of the Sifri it goes so far as to say that Bilam’s prophetic powers, although of Satanic origin, were equivalent to those of Moses himself.  

This begs the question – How could someone as powerful and wise as Bilam believe that he could curse the Israelites without God’s knowledge or even against God’s will? One possible answer is that Bilam was too blinded by his hatred of the Israelites or his own selfish motivations that he was not able to think rationally.  In a position of power, Bilam was not attuned to God’s signals or the reality of the situation.  


In the end, Bilam tells Balak that he could only say what God puts in his mouth.

One message to glean from this is that wisdom and skill do not always lead to good decision making or prevent foolish behavior.  As a parent and a teacher, I take this lesson to heart.  It is incumbent on us as individuals to teach ourselves and our children that we are all human and as we attain important positions of leadership and power in our families, professions, and community that we do so not for our own personal gain, but rather for others in our community.

We also learn that when it is time to make choices in our lives that we should act out of love and not hatred.  We must listen to those around us and try to be guided by God and Torah’s teaching to make the world a better place.  Bilam failed to heed the power and will of God.  Only at the end of this episode does he come to the realization that his own power and wisdom had limits.  

I encourage us all to learn from Bilam and act out of love and the desire to do God’s will.  If we do perhaps the blessing of Bilam will come true and our dwelling places and community will indeed be blessed.

Rabbi Brad Horwitz is Director of the JCC Helene Mirowitz Center for Jewish Community Life and President of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.