Rabbi Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City (1996-1999)
Between Blesses and Curses:
How do we define a blessing and what is a curse? Well, usually good things are seen as a blessing and bad things are called curses. But is it that simple? There is an old Buddhist parable that a man once lost his horse and all his friends said “That’s bad.” To which he replied “Maybe.” Well, the very next day his horse rode back into their village together with a wild horse that it had befriended while it had been away. Now the man had two horses. All his friends said “That’s good.” The man replied “Maybe.”
His son tried to ride the new horse but the horse was not used to being ridden and threw off the rider, breaking his son’s leg. All his friends said “That’s bad.” He only replied “Maybe.” The next day an army recruiter came into town and took away all the able bodied young men to fight the war far away from home. But when they saw the boy with the broken leg they let him be. “That’s good” said the friends. The man had the same answer, “Maybe.”
Blessings and curses depend on the circumstance and on the end results, which cannot always be seen. Definitely not immediately.
That brings us to this week’s Parshah. Bilaam is hired to curse the people but God, initially reluctant to let him go at all, eventually acquiesces on the condition that Bilaam will only repeat what God tells him.
And so we end up with a list of blessings, some of them so sublime that they are incorporated into our prayers. “How good are your tents, Ya’akov, your sanctuaries, Israel.” (Bemidbar 24:5)
Yet some of the blessings are less clear, for example “they are a nation that dwell apart and are not considered among the nations” (ibid. 23:9). This sounds more like a curse than a blessing, and indeed this blessing/curse has plagued the Jewish people since Bilaam uttered it on that lonely hill millennia ago.
The Jewish people have always lived apart, separated from their neighbors and pushed to the periphery by their host cultures. Until today we see that the United Nations is not always so happy that we are a member and gives us “special” treatment, loving to hate and censure us whereas other nations can get away with murder, literally in all too many cases.
So is this a blessing or a curse?
The Netziv explains that the Jewish people are only a great nation when they are separate, even if this is not by choice but by force. Only when the Jews are alone are they able to be a special nation.
Israel can only retain her special essence and fulfil her God-given task of spreading the Torah throughout the world if she remains separate and distinct. A nation that mixes up with the other nations quickly loses her special character before she is able to influence others.
Only by being separate can we develop our own qualities and then spread the Torah to the world. This is the task that we received through the Torah.
He explains the second part of this blessing the same way. “Among the nations we are not considered”; when we try to become part of other nations they immediately reject us and set us apart. We are only considered important when we live apart and this can influence the entire world.
Look at how much the State of Israel has changed the world. I once flew across America on several internal flights. On each flight they offered the local newspaper and I noted that on the front page of all of these there was at least one article about Israel. This completely outweighs the apparent importance of this tiny strip of land. But when the Jews came home they received a place in the world arena and were able to teach the world a lesson in morality and justice. This has changed Jews all over the world, not only in Israel. The Jew trying to be accepted into society one century ago found almost all of the doors closed to them. now he is more likely to find a place of importance.
The curse of separation has become a blessing, the other nations now look closely at the Jewish people and hold us up to a higher moral standard. We are a people who live apart and through that have importance among the other nations.