“I have decided to stick to love… Hate is too great a burden to bear.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
Love vs. hate, Blessings vs. Curses. These are some of the themes which run through the commentaries on parshat Balak. The midrash notes linguistic and thematic similarities between the stories of Balaam and Avraham. Both Avraham and Balaam demonstrate “zrizut,” enthusiasm for their mission. In the story of akeidat Yitzchak, Avraham rises early and saddles his own donkey to fulfill the word of God. Balaam too, sets out with enthusiasm to do as Balak has commanded, to curse the nation of Israel. The midrash points out that both these men had servants who certainly would have saddled their donkeys for them, but as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches, regarding Avraham: “Love upends the social order,” and about Balaam: “Hate upends the social order.” Similarly, Pirkei Avot teaches that one can choose to be a student of Balaam and have an “evil eye” or like a disciple of Avraham, with a “good eye.” Balaam was keen to curse a whole people he did not know, while Avraham sought out opportunities to bless others. Perhaps this is why the midrash teaches that at first God was the only giver of blessings in Bereshit, until God gave the ability to bless others over to Avraham and his descendents.
Each day we have an opportunity to look at the world negatively, with a critical eye and spread hatefulness in the world, or with a good and generous eye and share brachot with others. Perhaps that is why we start the day with Balaam’s curse-turned-blessing, “mah tovu,” to remind us of this choice.
Hatred is on the rise these days. It has been seen between Jews and fellow Jews, in the form of antisemitism and through the recent tragic bloodshed in Chicago. By following the model of Avraham, “the father of many nations,” we can upend the current social status quo by promoting love over hate. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson
*Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)