In the movie Moonstruck, Loretta’s boyfriend takes off for Italy. At the gate are Loretta and an old woman, who asks, “You have someone on that plane?”
Loretta replies, “Yeah, my fiancé.”
The old woman turns angry. “My sister is on that plane. I put a curse on that plane, that it’s gonna explode and fall into the sea. Fifty years ago, she stole a man from me. Today she tells me she never loved him… I cursed her that the green Atlantic water should swallow her up!”
Loretta says, “I don’t believe in curses.”
The woman shrugs and says, “Eh, neither do I.”
What, then, do we make of the Torah portion, Balak, when the King of Moab calls upon the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to “Put a curse upon this people [Israel], since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them…” Is it just superstition, or is there something to this power to curse – and to bless?
Isaac Abravanel, seeing the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Iberia, says Balaam’s curse is public relations and spreading of discord. He says Balaam’s sorcery was world-famous. If Balaam cursed Israel, the surrounding nations would pluck up their courage and aid Balak against Israel.
When former U.S. president Jimmy Carter writes a book titled Peace, Not Apartheid, the stature of the man turns the title into a curse against Israel that screws up the courage of others to damn Israel as well, and to use that term, apartheid, against Israeli policies. It takes huge public relations to counteract the damage that such a curse can cause. Abravanel teaches that well-regarded people should not curse, but rather bless the best in others, so that hatred is not stirred up.
Just as Moonstruck’s old woman admitted her curse has no power, so Rabbi Joseph Ibn Kaspi suggests that Balaam’s curse must be considered only from the point of view of those at the receiving end – the Israelites. Does it really work on them?
Balaam was a renowned sorcerer. People were impressed, as sometimes they are today, by sorcerers and diviners. Some always believe the curses of a person with a large reputation. Some Israelites would take it badly, even though the curse was useless, so God prevented Balaam from cursing them.
Think about how some people react when cursed: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Yet, words can hurt deeply. When someone who is respected condemns another, that person will usually feel throbs of anguish. The pain of a slap across the face disappears, but the pain of hurtful words is never forgotten.
Just as God sought to save Israel the pain of Balaam’s hurtful words, so we should try to step in and see if somehow we can turn hurtful words to blessing.
Curses may not have real power, but the person delivering the curse may be influential, and the words spoken may be an attempt to incite general hatred or the words may be hurtful to an individual. Better to bless than to curse, and we must think carefully of ways to do so when we come into situations where conflict may occur. That may be the best lesson that Balak has to teach us.
Rabbi Leigh Lerner is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal