I grew up in a world of blessings and curses, and I mean a world of radically elaborate blessings and curses. I speak of course of the Yiddish world, the world of Jews from Eastern Europe. It surrounded me and was in the air all the time. The incredible creativity in describing problematic people attests to the chief complaints about women and men. The sheer number of names for a useless person, a shlemiel, a shlemazel, a shmendrik, a pisk malocheh, and much worse, all very colorful. Jews never held anything back in their criticism of each other, which naturally psychologists might see as internalized persecution.
Some people I knew had a very hard life with bitter disappointments and losses. They used to call many people “chaleria”, which later I would learn meant roughly, “a piece of Cholera”. Many people were requested to ‘plotz’, explode, but only after they had gone to ‘kakin afen yam’, relieve themselves in the ocean. On the other hand, I had other old people in my life who felt very fortunate, who lost so many relatives in the Holocaust but were blessed with good husbands and large families. They blessed us children abundantly. I remember always hearing about mazel and glick, good fortune and good luck, but I was quite confused because I thought they were always telling me about some family named ‘Glick’, because there actually was a butcher named Glick. Go figure. I was a bit eber botult, mixed up in the head.
There is something about blessings and curses that are both a very weighty matter, taken with the utmost seriousness by the Torah and the Talmud. But there is also something about cursing that you just have to laugh at, especially because it seems to be borne out of a profound sense of absurdity, powerlessness, and endless fighting between people that goes nowhere, what we call in conflict analysis ‘intractable conflict’.
Numbers 22-25, the portion of the Torah called Balak, does not disappoint in this regard. It is an absurd and odd tale for many reasons. It has great and fearsome enemies of Israel, Moab and Midian, reduced to hiring a professional curser, Bilaam, against the Israelites, but who just can’t seem to get it right. Every time he tries to curse a blessing comes out of his mouth, and a curse on the very people who hired him. And let’s not even talk about the fact that divine prophecy is coming out of the mouth of an ass? What is this, a Mel Brooks routine? Something is strange about this episode.
This portion also ends quite badly. Just as you think that Israel has the upper hand because Bilaam simply ends up blessing them with victory, they end up really screwing up behaviorally, so badly that their own leader, Moses, brings upon them the very kind of plague that Moab and Midian could not have been more pleased about.
I started to sense that this is a very violent portion, filled with adversarial relations, endless hatred and wishes of ill will, triumphalism, and a very male psychology of win/lose, defeat or be defeated, be cursed or be blessed—and take no prisoners.
I asked myself a basic question about this portion, why put blessings into the mouth of those who want to curse? And why are we treated to such a profound look into the psychology of malignant enemies, Moab, Midian, Balak? I started to realize that the portion is really dealing with Israel at the apex of its power against its enemies. Its reputation for victory has spread to many peoples, and they have become afraid and desperate, so afraid and desperate that they are relying on cursing for hire. Even more, the portion ends with a plague in fact coming on Israel. Why end this way?
There is a strange principle in the Torah, especially as it is refracted by the rabbis. It is best encapsulated by an enigmatic phrase in Ecclesiastes, Kohelet (3:15). Kohelet states: ve’ha’elokim yevakesh et a ha’nirdaf, The Divine desires (seeks after, embraces, longs for, sides with) the one that is pursued (persecuted). Later commentaries will emphasize that it does not matter whether the persecuted are guilty, are the criminals. It is in the nature of the universe that the Divine will balance out persecution with devotion, dedication and protection.
This makes the business of cursing very problematic indeed. It means that whatever happens, whoever has the upper hand, they had better watch out, because a balance is coming to fate and to the universe. It will make victory and blessings at the expense of someone else being cursed into a very dubious way to flourish. In effect, once cursing is afoot, once the curses are flying, no one is going to do very well in a Divine world.
This portion begins with the complete impotence of Israel’s enemies in the art of cursing, and blessings flow for Israel to crush and bloody its enemies. Yet the end of the portion has Israel bloodied in the worst way, by its own deeds, and by the curses or words of indictment of their own leader, Moses, as well as radically violent acts against their own leadership. What is divine wrath in this portion? Plagues and your own leaders turning against you and commanding a civil war, turning brother against brother. This is a true curse.
What is the remedy within the portion? Go with the best of the blessings of Bilaam, the one about brothers living as one together, the one about tents of peace. And yet everything at the end undermines the comfort of those victorious blessings, these anti-curses in defiance of Midian and Moab, and certainly the bloody predictions of a slaughterhouse where your enemies will be eaten by you. Something is unsatisfying here, which is why the rabbis made the deepest commentary on this troubled portion of curses through the words of the immortal prophet, Micah. Micah is salvation here.
The happier note of this entirely strange portion is not to be found in the Torah portion at all, but in the rabbinic choice of Micah 5 and 6 for the Haftorah, the prophetic portion that is meant to accompany (in this case redeem) the portion from the Five Books of Moses.
The Haftorah is the answer to everything, and here is how it goes. In an adversarial universe everyone dies by God’s ruthless might and revenge. God’s might is expressed by the violence of warfare and revenge. Micah effectively says that people can continue to fantasize about a primitive god that will be appeased by bulls and blood and sacrifice, the re-creation of bloody warfare in the slaughterhouse of the Temple. But where the deepest answer lies is not in blood and sacrifice. The true answer to the mysteries of enemy systems, of endless cycles of curses and blessings and reversals, and curses again, is something that is at once utterly nonviolent, utterly compassionate, and utterly beyond war. It is something utterly beyond demonization and particularist jingoism.
The answer lies inside the human soul, every human soul. It is in the intra-psychic discipline and choice of making three things the locus of our longing and pleasure. It is the key for the human being and the human community to discover union with the God that inhabits ever quanta of the universe, every quanta in which there can be no cursed and no blessed, where all of life is inter-dependent, sacred and part of the body of God. The secret to God is in the quanta, and the true way to discover the blessings of the quanta of God in all of life is through three very hard spiritual practices: the pursuit of social justice, the pursuit of love and kindness, and the practice of humility. It is these practices–and these practices only–that allow the human being and the human community to pass through the mysterious God-intoxicated universe, in safety, in peace and in prosperity.
“He has told you, human being, what is good, and what Eternal Being is searching for in you: the practice of justice, the love of kindness, and a humble journey with the God.”
© Marc Gopin