By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann Published in the New Jersey/Rockland Jewish Standard: July 3, 2015
“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotechah Yisrael!” — “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.”
These beautiful words of blessing stir up warm memories of growing up Jewish. They were among the first holy verses that I sang and chanted with peers in school and in camp. And yet, I wonder how these words of blessing — uttered by Bilam, who came to curse — got into our Torah in the first place.
When Bilam is hired to curse the Jewish People, God blocks his curse and turns it into a blessing. At the heart of this story is the question of why God, who runs the world, was concerned with Bilam’s curse. Bilam himself concedes that “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel” (Bamidbar 23:23). Why did this story unfold as it did? What lesson does it contain that makes it worthy of being in the Torah?
Nechama Leibowitz quotes the commentary of Rav Yosef Ibn Kaspi. He asserts a truth regarding relationships to explain why God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing. As Kaspi puts it, “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 Bilam from cursing them.” When you really love someone, you care about that which matters to them, even if you know it to be insignificant. God knew that the Israelites were afraid of Bilam’s curse, so He not only prevented Bilam from saying his negative words but He flipped them into blessings, all because of His love for His people.
Ibn Kaspi’s take on Parshat Balak exposes the subconscious layer of the literal text, revealing God’s love of the Jewish People as the theme of this episode. God is modeling a loving relationship for us, and thus we must try to be like God, fulfilling the mandate of Imitatio Dei. We need to remember that what matters to others aren’t necessarily the things that we think are important. To truly care for another person means to be sensitive to what they care about. When those around us are concerned about something, even if we don’t understand why they care about it, true friendship and love dictates that we be supportive of their feelings.
When God took the Jews out of Egypt He took us the long way in order to avoid war. He could have told the Jews to buckle up and that He was with them and they didn’t have to be afraid. Instead, He respected and accommodated to people’s fears rather than challenging their feelings, which He knew were objectively unwarranted.
The Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that every human being is beloved by God. This love is made clear by the awareness we are granted of the fact that we were created in the image of God. Additionally, that love is evidenced by the giving of the Torah and by our being deemed children of God. Similarly, before we fulfill our obligation of reciting Shema in the day and the night, we reference God’s “abundant love” for us, highlighting this aspect of the relationship.
God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing at a time of transition, right after the decree that Moshe would not enter the Land of Israel. The generation that left Egypt had died out; the new generation was feeling insecure as they prepared to finally enter the Promised Land and they needed and were given a reassurance of God’s love.
May this illustration of God’s great love for His people in the desert cause us to recall and be inspired by the immeasurable love that God has for each of us today. May we approach our spiritual lives with a sense of God’s love and reciprocate that love through joyous involvement in Torah life, rather than regarding our observance of mitzvot as a mandated burden. And may we all strive and succeed to follow His ways and to be there for each other in vulnerable times when we are needed most.