Friday, June 21, 2013

Shrek, Game of Thrones, and The Hebrew Bible?

14 Tammuz 5773 / June 21-23, 2013

In this week’s portion, Balak, we find a king, a sorcerer, a talking donkey (not the one from Shrek as far as I can tell), and some very strong words of praise.  Balak, the king of Moab, contracts with Balaam, a sorcerer who has a close relationship with God, to curse the Israelite nation in advance of their upcoming battle.  Balaam says he can only speak the words that God permits him to.  And go figure, God makes him bless the Israelites rather than curse them.  Balak, ever the patient king, tries three times to have Balaam curse the Israelites.  Each of the three times, Balaam brings forth blessings rather than curses.  And at the end of the day, they go their separate ways, with the Israelites having no idea that the event transpired.

There are a couple of things about this narrative that are particularly fascinating.

First, there is no mention of Moses or Aaron, or any active part played by persons we already have a relationship with (short of God).  How did this text come to be in the Torah?

Second, there were sorcerers out there who had connections to God?  The text tells us that God appeared to Balaam!  Does that make him a prophet?

Third, maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones, but how is it that after Balaam’s failure to curse the Israelite nation, Balak allows him to live?  Everything I know about enemy kings suggests that they are vicious, vengeful, spiteful and anything but patient.  I expected Balak to shout, “off with his head!”  But instead, we read: “Then Balaam set out on his journey back home; and Balak also went his way.”  Perhaps the belief in Balaam’s power as a sorcerer scared Balak from exacting vengeance and enacting his rage?  Obviously there must have been some sort of belief in his power, given that Balak was prepared to pay for his services in the first place.

In terms of a takeaway lesson from this week’s portion, if we look closely at the words Balaam uses to bless the Israelite nation (the third time), we find the following gem: “Blessed are they who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.”

While intended specifically to refer to the Israelite nation, the phrase is beautiful when more broadly applied as well.

What is the relationship between offering blessings and being blessed?  Of cursing and being cursed?

On a simple level, there is real power in positive psychology.  If we make ourselves be positive by offering positive words of praise and blessing, inevitably our outlook on life will be comparatively positive and thus we’ll feel blessed.  So too on the flip side.

A bit deeper, we come to find an appreciation that words have incredible power, and should be considered cautiously.

This Shabbat, reflect on the power of the words and feelings you put out into the world, and the resulting impact on your general mood and state of being.  Strive to bless rather than curse.  Recognize that we all have the power, like Balaam, to choose words of blessing, or to spew words of hate.  Choose praise.

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