If I had to choose one thing from the entire Torah that I would like to be able to do, of all the miracles, of all the signs and wonders, the one described in this week’s Torah portion would be it.
Imagine back with me to the scene. The mighty and evil King Balak has decided that the Israelites are too numerous and too dangerous to tolerate. Although they have done nothing, Balak is convinced that if left unchecked, they will overwhelm his empire. In a rage the powerful king calls for the prophet Balaam and orders him to swear a curse upon the Israelites, dooming them to destruction.
Curses, the ancients believed in them and the Torah is full of them. Disobey Torah and you were subject to one or more of the following: consumption, fever, inflammation, blight, and mildew. Your carcass would become bird food. You would suffer madness and blindness, constant abuse and robbery. Your wife would be raped, and your children sold into slavery. According to the Torah you could even be cursed with "hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and an itch from which you never recover!"
Curses might seem like primitive, naive nonsense to a lot of us. In fact, they comprise an entire genre of jokes. My two favorite Yiddish curses are: “May you be like a chandelier--hang by day and burn by night," and "May you grow so rich your widow's second husband never has to worry about making a living."
Sure we laugh at the idea of curses, but who doesn’t feel at least a little cursed right now? This week two temple families each suffered the death of an adult child and another with four millennial children lost their father. The governor just outlawed singing and chanting in houses of worship, effectively closing us down indefinitely (for good reason); there go the b’nei mitzvah and the weddings…again. Americans can’t find jobs, unemployment benefits are ending, ICUs are filling and there seems no end in sight. Covid-19 is winning; mocking the very notion of American exceptionalism on this Shabbat of Independence.
That’s why if I had only one miracle to choose from the entire Torah, I would choose the one that happens to Balaam when he opens his mouth to curse the ancient Israelites. As the Torah tells it, despite his intention to curse our ancestors, when he looks down upon them encamped in the desert he says “Mah tovu--how good,” how good these people are, this community of God dwelling in the desert. Balaam’s curse becomes a blessing, and that just might be the single most important lesson the Torah ever comes to teach us about life; that we can turn our curses, our sorrows, and the ache of being human--into a blessing.
The real tragedy of life is not that we suffer pain and disappointment, but that we sometimes fail to transform that suffering into a blessing. So let us turn the pain of quarantine into the blessing of time alone and together with the ones we love most; to sit in quietude, to speak deeply of things, to imagine a better day, to light Shabbat candles tonight and relish their glow. To rediscover the old fashioned pleasure of a front yard chat with a neighbor, a home-cooked meal, a stroll down the street. Let the economic pause be a chance to consider a new path, a new way, an old friend who might be able to help. Let each morning give us pause and reason to pray, to exercise our body and our spirit; each afternoon the chance to read, to grow, to zoom, and to laugh with family from afar and friends from long ago. Let us savor the time with our adult children who otherwise would not be with us and the new babies who otherwise would have been left at home with another while we trudged to the office in traffic.
Trouble is neutral. It can do almost anything to us. It can make us bitter and resentful. It can make us hard and cruel. It can plunge us into despair and futility or it can ennoble us and enable us to examine our lives and seek a peace that has been so elusive for so long.
If we have one miracle to make our own, one strength to choose--let it be the strength to turn curses into blessings, to learn joy from sadness, and life from death. Let it be the strength of Balaam and our Torah, calling out across a thousand generations in the face of what it means to be human and proclaiming in spite of our sadness, because of our sadness: “Mah tovu--how good,” how very good our lives can be.
Love and Shabbat shalom,