The Torah portion for this week is called Balak and is from the Book of Numbers. In this portion, we read that Balak, the King of Moab, wishes to defeat the Israelites in battle. In order to ensure that he will be victorious, Balak hires Balaam, a well-known prophet, to curse the Israelites. Balak believes that Balaam’s power with words will weaken the Israelites and make them unable to defend themselves against the Moabite forces.
Words, we know, have incredible power. Words are a creative force. It is with words that God created this world. It is with words that amazing art is created. It is with words that relationships are created and nurtured. Words can be the source and the force of great good in our world.
Balak knew about powerful words. But he knew more about the destructive power that words could wield. So, he turned to Balaam with the hope that the curse he could summon would bring about the destruction of the Israelites. Balaam was aware of this power and was circumspect in its use. He demurs when Balak first proposes the plan. But he eventually relents.
In the climactic moment of the story, Balaam stands on the edge of a mountain top overlooking the Israelites encampment. He was so moved by what he saw that the words he meant to recite as a curse to weaken and destroy were transformed on his lips to become a blessing that we have incorporated into our morning worship. Mah Tovu…“How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”
The lesson? When given the opportunity to use our words, understand the power you wield; understand the potential to lift up and sustain the good as well as the peril of destroying that which is inherently divine.
Today our airwaves are filled with words meant to demean, diminish, and destroy. Our culture has embraced the binary choice of you are either my friend or my enemy, you are either with me or against me. It is horrifying that the choice has been made by so many to use words to destroy the opposition.
But Judaism has always been counterculture. Abraham was described as Ha Ivri, the one who stood on the other side, different, not a slave to the status quo, willing to argue even with God for the sake of others, to save life with his words. Jacob/Israel our namesake means that we are God wrestlers, struggling to do what is just and good.
Our divine mandate is to raise our voices in the face of injustice and to use our words for the greater good. That is why I am so proud that Temple Jeremiah joined with more than 500 other Jewish organizations to use our words as anti-racists in support of Black Lives Matter to create a better future. Please click here to read the statement.
May this Shabbat find us using the power of our words to create and uplift.