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Balak: The Impact of Curse and Blessing
Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The story of Balaam presents a number of difficulties, some of which we have dealt with on previous occasions. We shall devote our Studies this time to discussing the following question asked by Abravanel:

Why did God prevent Balaam from cursing the Israelites?
Why should they have cared about his curse, as long as the Lord blessed his people with peace?

The Torah places no faith in divination and magic. Only the heathen deities were limited in their powers which were circumscribed by occult laws. They were powerless to break a spell or dissolve the potency of a malediction. But such was not the portion of Jacob. Even Balaam had to admit that — there was no divination in Jacob. The whole of our sidra is concerned with discrediting superstition and belief in magical practices. This is the aim of the story of the ass. Balaam was proceeding to curse a whole nation with his mouth. He, the seer and prophet, who claimed to probe the mysteries of time could not even see what his ass beheld.

The most foolish of animals confronted the wisest of men. Yet the moment it spoke, he was confounded. [Bamidbar Raba 20:12]

In that event, greater force is added to our original question. What significance, indeed, could be attached to the curse of such a personality and why was it necessary to turn it into blessing? Some commentators suggest that this was done to teach Balaam a lesson, that he was not his own master. No magic rites (build me seven altars etc.) could prevail over the Supreme Master. He had no choice but utter the words the Almighty had put into his mouth (And the Lord put a word in the mouth of Balaam 23:5), even if they were the opposite to what he wished to say.

Others however maintain that the curses were turned into blessings not so much as to teach Balaam a lesson as to benefit Israel. Did Israel need his blessing? Surely the Almighty was the true source of all blessing and it was He who blessed Israel? The answer given to this is that Balaam`s words objectively speaking, maledictory or otherwise, were of no effect. It depended on the Almighty to do good or evil. But subjectively, from the point of view of the Israelites, themselves who had been reared in Egypt on magic and superstition, his utterances as sorcerer-in-chief of the nations, were bound to have a considerable impact. This is the explanation outlined by Joseph Ibn Kaspi:

The curse of Balaam had no objective potency neither in terms of the author or the deed. Its effect must only be considered from the point of view of those at the receiving end, i.e., the Israelites. Balaam, was a renowned sorcerer and people were impressed both then and now by sorcerers and diviners. There is no point in asking the reason for the belief of Balak and his company just as there is no reason for doing so in the case of Jacob and Esau, who attached such importance to their father's blessing. If they did, how much more so the Israelites of those days, in particular the women and children, who would be greatly affected by the maledictions of such a renowned sorcerer!

A true friend will save his colleague any pain, even if he knows that no danger will ensue. Similarly the Almighty, out of the abundance of his love for Israel prevented Balaam from cursing them, though he was aware that his curses were impotent. But the Almighty did not rest content with this. He went so far as to make Balaam bless the people to give them pleasure, as it is stated:

The Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam (Deuteronomy 23:6) … The reason of this was because the Lord loveth thee. Similarly it is recorded in Joshua (24:9-10): Balak called Balaam to curse you. But I would not hearken to Balaam; therefore he even blessed you; so I delivered you out of his hand. This means that God delivered the Israelites out of his hand, according to his idea of the power of his own words and that of some of the children of Israel. At any rate, He delivered them from hearing his curse … all out of love for his people. (Tirat Kesef)

Abravanel makes a similar point:

Balaam`s sorcery was world famous. Balak referred to his renown when he said: For I know he whom thou blessed is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed … Had Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would have plucked up courage and gone to battle with Israel on the strength of his curses. But when they heard how God had turned them into blessings, they would then realize who was Master … and would lose all desire to fight His people. From this point of view, the turning of Balaam's words into blessing served a very useful purpose. This same psychological warfare is referred to by Joshua (2:9):

I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us. How did Rahab know all this if not from Balaam's prophetic blessings?

There are other authorities however who maintain that neither Balaam's nor Israel's good was exclusively involved. The Almighty was concerned to protect all his creatures from error. He does not want to be instrumental in bolstering superstition. Had Balaam cursed, the Moabites would certainly have assumed that the reason why the Israelites refrained from attacking them was due to their effect, and not because the Almighty had forbad them to – be at enmity with Moab neither contend with the …(Deuteronomy 2:9). This explanation closely follows Luzzatto's:

Israel had been forbidden to attack Moab. Had Balaam cursed, the latter and Balak would have boasted that they had succeeded in wording off the Israelites. They might even have gone forth to fight them like the Edomites did. Israel would have retreated and the name of God would have been discredited.

A similar explanation involving the consideration of hillul hashem is advanced by Anslem Astruk:

The Almighty's warning – thou shalt not curse the people-was given not because Balaam was capable of doing harm, since – the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps … But this was done to preclude the inhabitants of the land from ascribing any retribution the Israelites might suffer for their sins to the effect of Balaam's curses. The Almighty wished to bring home to His people their disobedience, immediately, as a father chastiseth his son. He wished too to preclude misguided talk impugning His omnipotence. Compare Numbers 14:14 and Exodus 22:12.

That was the reason why-God`s anger against Balaam was kindled because he went-(Numbers 22:22), not that he would do any damage, but because some of his hearers would ascribe any retribution they might suffer for their sins to the effect of his curse. [Midreshei Torah]

There is a difference between the two latter approaches. Luzzatto regards the Divine action against Balaam as an expedient of temporary effect only, to weaken the morale of Israel's enemies, as well as to sanctify the name of God publicly. Whereas Astruc regards it as an expedient with a long-term effect, to preclude Israel attributing all their sufferings, in their future history, to the effect of Balaam's curse, instead of to the incurring of Divine displeasure through their disobedience. This would be a Hillul Ha-shem, a desecration of the Divine name.

The almighty turned Balaam's curses into blessings not to save Israel from their hurt but all the peoples from being led further into superstitious beliefs.

Questions for Further Study

1. Astruc compares our context with the intercession of Moses after the misconduct of the spies [numbers 14] and the golden calf [Exodus 32]. Explain the connection.

2. And Balak … saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites … [22: 2]. The two kings on whom we relied were not able to withstand them. How much less will we be able to! What is the point of Rashi's explanation and what impression does he correct? What prompted his comment? In answering, compare Rashi's comment to Genesis 18, 3 on the first word to the sidra.

3. And the sent of messengers unto Balaam to call him saying, Behold there is a people come out of Egypt; Behold, they cover the face of earth, and they abide over against me...[22: 5]. A nameless people who have broken out like slaves to carve out estates for themselves and dwell in a land not their own.

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