Words matter, with or without a talking donkey

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael is the coordinator of community chaplaincy at Jewish Family & Children’s Service and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light. 

BY Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael

In Parashat Balak, we read a vivid and strange episode in the life of the Israelites. As the Israelites draw near to Moab, the Moabites find themselves terrified of this foreign people approaching their country. The Moabite king, Balak, decides to meet this threat by hiring Bilaam, a well-known sorcerer to curse the Israelites.  He sends messengers to Bilaam, telling him, “I know that whatever you bless is blessed, and whatever you curse is cursed.” 

After some dithering, Bilaam agrees to the job, with the caveat that he will say only what God permits him to say. After a long journey involving an encounter with an angel and a talking donkey, he arrives at the Israelite encampment. He and Balak make elaborate preparations for the ritual of cursing, only to find that the words that escape from Bilaam’s mouth are instead a blessing of Israel. Twice more, Bilaam tries to find the words for a curse but finds himself offering blessing instead. 

His third unwilling blessing contains the famous words Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel.” 

This parashah makes for a good and memorable story, but it is difficult to tell what it is doing in our Torah. The entire episode is told from the vantage point of Balak and Bilaam; it is difficult to know whether the Israelites even know at the time that someone is trying to curse them or that they have been blessed instead. 


It is hard to know what to make of the interaction between God and the sorcerer-for-hire. Rather than simply dismiss Bilaam as unimportant or ineffective, God seems to speak to him directly and to care very much whether he offers words of blessing or curse. And let’s not even get started on how to interpret the talking donkey.

One thing that does become very clear in this parashah is that words matter. Balak sees a group of people approaching Moab, finds them threatening and very carefully chooses his words about them. He claims that “the group will devour everything around us, just as a bull devours the vegetation of the field.” 

Notice the three things that he does here. First, he calls the Israelites “the group,” taking away their name and identity. Then, he emphasizes that they will “devour” the resources of the Moabites, creating an us-or-them mentality. Finally, he compares them to “a bull,” asking the Moabites to dehumanize the Israelites. His words are designed to incite maximal hatred of the Israelites, and they work.

His next attack on the Israelites is also with words. When he hires Bilaam to utter a curse, he is looking for words that will do more than change public opinion. He is looking for words that will cause direct harm to the Israelites, allowing for their defeat. The Torah seems to validate his belief that this type of sorcery can work, that the words uttered by Bilaam will have a real effect in the world. In fact, rabbinic interpreters are quick to say that Bilaam is himself as powerful a prophet as Moses (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:12). Whatever he says, for good or for bad, it will matter.

And this is why God does need to step in to the story. God tells Bilaam, twice, that the people that he is being paid to curse are blessed and that he will not be allowed to say anything that will cause them harm.  

But silencing Bilaam’s curse is not enough. God instead chooses to instruct Bilaam to go with the king’s messengers and speak, in public, using the words that God will put into his mouth. He has to make this journey because in order for his curse to be effective, he has to be standing where he can see the people that he is cursing. 

When his first curse is turned into a blessing, he looks for a different place to stand, a new vantage point that might allow him to curse. God is showing him something important: Not only is it God’s power that will prevent Bilaam from uttering a curse, but the experience of seeing the Israelites directly is itself enough to transform his curse.

As we read these chapters of Torah, may we remember that our words, and particularly our words about those who we see as “other,” matter. The things that we say —  or type, or share — without a moment’s thought can do real and lasting harm, or real and lasting good. 

May we remember that in the here and now, no one is going to send us a talking donkey or Divine Editor to filter what we say. But we can demand of ourselves just this much: that before we say something, we take a few moments to truly consider the people we might be cursing, and allow that encounter to change our words to words of blessing.