Friday Dvar Torah for Balak
From Rabbi David Schuck, our Scholar in Residence and Rabbi of the Pelham Jewish Center
If you are a God fearing person would you be afraid of a curse uttered against you by a person from a different religious tradition, a person who rejects your God? This is the situation in which we find the Israelites in Parashat Balak. Balak, the king of Moav, hires Balaam, a non-Israelite seer to curse the Israelites. This creates a paradox: if God is all-powerful and intervenes in the world (like, say, rescuing the Israelites from slavery and drowning their enemies in the sea), why would the Israelites (or God for that matter) care if this idolater cursed them? Is God afraid that this soothsayer has the power to call upon his gods to cause harm to the Israelites? Couldn’t we have just ignored Balaam and let him curse the Israelites all he wanted?
The Rambam seems to think that the harm of this situation is the way in which common people (read: people who do not posses the gift of a staggering intellect- people like you and me) are influenced by the act of being cursed. In Moreh Nevuchim (3:41), the Rambam writes that "as far as the common folk are concerned, a curse is worse than bodily harm." Even if we don’t think the curse will work, it still causes a level of anxiety within us. A central theme of Parashat Balak is the efficacy of blessings and curses. We tend to understand them in the context of the following questions: Can they affect the world? Can we manipulate God to do our will or are blessings and curses only effective when they align with what God wanted in the first place? I’d like to propose a different way to think about them: our blessings and curses can change the way in which other people relate to God rather than vice versa. If this is true, then uttering a blessing or a curse can have profound implications, as it can bring people closer to or distance them from God.
In Hilchot Yesodei Torah (5:1), the Rambam states the following:
כל בית ישראל מצווין על קדוש השם הגדול הזה שנאמר ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל, ומוזהרין שלא לחללו שנאמר ולא תחללו את שם קדשי
"All the House of Israel is commanded to hallow God’s Great Name, as it is stated: "I will be hallowed among the children of Israel" (Lev. 22:32) and is warned not to profane it, as it is stated, "And you shall not profane My Holy Name"…
The Rambam suggests that we are commanded to hallow God’s name. Isn’t this strange? Why would God depend on human beings for God’s kedushah, or holiness? Isn’t God, be definition, holy, and isn’t God our source of holiness? The reverse is also true: if God is our source of holiness, how can we possibly profane God?
A close reading of the Rambam yields a compelling answer. He states that we are obliged to make God’s name holy, not God Himself. According to the Rambam, God cares that human beings equate God’s name with kedushah. Without this acknowledgment, God’s essence is somehow lost on humanity. In the Pesikta D’Rav Kahana (Midrash 12), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai articulates this notion with surprising candor. He states, "If you are My witnesses, then I am He, the first One, neither shall any be after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God." God needs human beings to serve as witnesses who testify to the profundity of God’s essence. Without us, God’s fundamental nature (justice, righteousness, truth, and mercy), is lost to the world. God needs us to sanctify God’s name so that everyone will come to know God and learn to internalize even just a fraction of these divine traits. We sanctify God’s name through our behavior and our words. When we bless someone, when we use God’s name to express the holiness of a moment or an act, we facilitate a drawing near between that person and God, which is the quintessential act of sanctifying God’s name. When we do violence to God’s name by using it to harm or curse another person, we create distance between God and humanity, even if that curse is not efficacious.
At Ramah New England, we are humbled by knowing that the way in which we treat our campers and one another will either sanctify God’s name and draw people closer to Him (kiddush hashem), or profane God’s name and separate us from God (chillul hashem). When we bless one another, we help people realize that God has given us the gifts of hesed, emet, and tzedek (loving-kindness, truth, and justice) and that we can actualize these divine traits through our behavior and blessings. We have been stressing the theme of hakarat hatov this summer, of expressing our gratitude to God for the gifts of the world and Torah, and to one another for the gifts of friendship, love, and kindness. Camp is the ideal setting to teach this because ultimately, we model hakarat hatov through our behavior and our words. Not even the best curriculum can impart these values as deeply as we can when we live them with our children and expose the campers to these values in real time. We take this responsibility seriously and feel privileged to grow to closer to God and one another through acts of Kiddush Hashem. Shabbat Shalom