Curses or Blessings: Coming to Know the Other

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Simone Schicker is a second year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. Her favorite area to read and write about is Judaism and relationships – including women and LGBTQ issues, reproductive rights, sex, gender identity and marriage. Check out Simone’s other Double Mitzvah columns, Giants in the Land – LGBT Rights Torah Style, Sacrifices, Holiness and Equality, and last week’s column, Finding Our Voices.

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Xenophobia – the irrational fear of those who are different from oneself. Most of us have struggled with xenophobia at one time or another, either as the one being xenophobic or as the one being targeted by a person with xenophobia. It is a reality of the human condition that we struggle to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but when we do, we discover, more often than not, that we are more alike than we could have ever realized otherwise.

This week’s parsha is Balak, a portion that most people remember not for Balak but for Balaam. Balaam is called both a non-Israelite prophet as well as a soothsayer by the rabbis of our tradition. What is often forgotten is that Balaam actually speaks, and later blesses, the People at three different points, and from three different locations around the camp. The first time he says “How can I damn [those] whom G-d has not damned / How [can I] doom when G-d has not doomed?” (Numbers 23:8). These words give us an insight into Balaam’s world. Xenophobia is not something one suffers from one moment and has resolved the next. Rather it is a process of coming to know the other, the stranger, that allows one to move past fear and into understanding.

This positive start is continued when Balaam once again speaks about the Hebrews. He says “My message was to bless: / When G-d blesses, I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:20). This statement is one of Balaam’s realizations that we all have a piece of the divine within us. When G-d states that the People are to be blessed and not cursed, Balaam interprets this as G-d teaching him that there is more to this People before him than what he has been previously told by Balak (and likely by others as well). We too must overcome our preconceived notions about people.

Finally we come to the third blessing, which is the most well known, since it is the curse turned blessing, the opening words of Ma Tovu – “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!” The fact that we say, in prayer, every morning, the words of a prophet not of our people, is a statement of inclusion and a beautiful piece of our history as Jews. We not only have Balaam’s words recorded in the Torah, our sacred text, but also in the majority of, (if not all) Jewish prayer books as part of our morning service.

While there is a lot to struggle with in the parsha, for example why G-d tells Balaam to go as he has been directed but then sends an Angel to block his way (1), I believe there is more to be learned than just the surface understanding that G-d is all powerful. Every day we have the opportunity to let people show their inner selves, and to shine, if we as individuals only give them the chance. Many of us are so busy trying to show who we are that we miss these moments of true connection, whether it is because we truly suffer from xenophobia or because we just believe we do not have the time. When we give people the time to speak and show us a piece of the inner self, we are being granted a gift that we should treat with care.

I was blessed last week, and again this week, with the opportunity to truly connect with two different people who I never would have thought would allow me the opportunity to see an aspect of their selves that they often keep hidden. These encounters have changed not only our relationships but also the way I view other people around me.

The rabbis of our tradition have never come to a conclusion about what happened to Balaam before and after the episodes we witness in this week’s parsha, but I would like to believe that he learned from his experience that one cannot always take the majority opinion as truth. Balaam was granted an opportunity to truly see the people around him without the xenophobic glasses that Balak wished to bestow upon Balaam and all his people.

I wish upon all of you that you are given the opportunity to take off the glasses which are clouding your vision and are able to have a genuine encounter with one person. One where you are blessed with the ability to really see them as the individual that they are. We might not always like the people around us but I pray that we acknowledge the humanity inside each one of us, for we are all made bet’zelem Elohim.


1. This is the most well known part of the parsha, since it involves the talking female donkey.

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