At the start of this parsha, the Hebrews are passing through Moab on the way to Canaan and the king of Moab, Balak, sees them and is afraid. He sends messengers to the pagan priest, Balaam, and they say on behalf of Balak,
There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”
This parsha is unusual, it reads more like a self-contained story than a logical continuation of the story of the hebrews in the desert that we have been following thus far. Balak commissions a curse, God tells Balaam to turn it down and he does, Balak insists, Balaam says yes and journeys to the capitol on a donkey, God sends an angel that only the talking donkey can see to block his way, the donkey stops, Balaam beats the donkey, long story short, Balaam gets to the city and prepares to make the big curse but God invades his heart and instead Balaam blesses the Hebrews, Ma Tovu, how good are your tents, the basis for our morning blessing.
It’s a real full on story with an inciting incident, a recalcitrant hero, an epic journey, a talking animal sidekick (it’s a Disney movie!), an invisible but violent angel, an angry king and the fate of two great peoples at stake. Great story, but sorry, I’m mostly interested this year in the curse and the blessing, or rather, the need for the curse and the blessing and the belief that a curse or a blessing will make a difference.
Balak believes in the importance and effect of public prayer utterly. We’re here, gathered on a Saturrday morning for services, so we must as well, right? Well, maybe. Sort of. Not at all? But here we are, Shabbat morning, praising, blessing, asking for help, praying for the health of ourselves or others, praying for the dead and their survivors, praying for our country, our world, praying for light, praying for creation, praying in gratitude, praying in fear.
This congregation exists for many reasons: to find friends and people with whom we share values, to take care of each other, to express the values that we call Jewish to work for social justice and, because we are a shul and not a social justice org, to celebrate life passages and to pray together. Together we curse our enemies and praise our friends. We work our way through the siddur praying these prayers to a male heirarchical God in a language that we may or may not understand, for goals that May no longer mean anything to us in our modern regular lives or even, if we think about them, we May violently disagree with. And yet here we are, praying, blessing, cursing.
And the rabbis of the Talmud? The halakhic schedule of prayer, morning afternoon and evening, substitutes for the schedule of sacrifice in the temple, which was necessary to placate God and expiate the people’s sins. For many Jews, these prayers are, among other things, both an obligation and a constant reminder of who we are and our relationship to God and for them it really matters to us and to God if we do this specific liturgy in the correct way.
But do we, us Jews sitting her this morning, believe that our prayer has any effect? If I curse you will you be cursed? If I pray a mishebeirach for you, will you be healed? If I bless you will you flourish? I don’t know. Rationally, I have to say no, of course not. Balak’s request of Balaam was just a morale booster, nothing more. I feel better when I pray to heal the sick, it gives me the illusion that I matter. But in the story, everybody takes this very seriously, as something that can really affect the outcome of the Hebrew people, and no one takes it more seriously than God, who bothers to send down an angel only a donkey can see. So, are we the perceptive donkey or the stubborn Balaam?
I’m going to now use a word that I never use, don’t believe in, disdain utterly… Faith. Why do I pray? I think it’s faith. Belief in something without any proof. Faith. Creeps me out, faith. So let me see if I can make it a little more palatable. Faith is perhaps holding more than one thought in my head at the same time: God doesn’t exist and I am in God’s presence. Both true, Ta daa! So when I pray, I am in conversation with the divine, or maybe just myself, or maybe with the act of praying itself. It’s not about dogma or antiquated ritual or halakhic laws for me.
Maybe the word isn’t even faith. Maybe it’s just something I know, a knowingness. I have a knowingness sometimes that when I pray there is connection, that I am being listened to. I fully accept that this is probably wishful thinking or neurological damage, or childhood indoctrination, but still, nevertheless, at the same time I feel a knowledge of being listened to. Maybe I’m the only one doing the listening and hey if that’s true, that’s still pretty good, cause most of the time I’m on Facebook or Netflix or NPR and I wouldn’t know myself if I fell over me. So it’s good to take a few minutes out of my day to really listen to what there is to hear.
And when I’m listening, to myself or God or the sound of the lovely people of my community praying, and when I feel heard and connected I feel loved, and I love. And that is powerful and then I think that a prayer might really be able to heal or to ask, with true sincereity and expectation, for good things to happen. Because why not? Really, why not?
My brother-in-law, Zdenek, died last September of cancer. He and my sister fought it off a long time, and in the first year or so of that, the two of them came over to my house for dinner. I waited until my sister went off to the bathroom and I told Zdenek, an atheist brought up in Communist Czechoslovakia, that I prayed for him at shul every week and that my congregation prayed with me and that we all prayed for his healing together. I was embarrassed, but I wanted him to know even though I thought he’d sneer or smirk. But he didn’t. He cried. And thanked me deeply. Do I think I helped his health with those prayers? I don’t know. Probably not. But I loved him with my prayer. We all did. And I loved him when I said Kaddish for him.
And in my best self, as much as I would love to curse our enemies, my prayers are not curses, God won’t let me. In this parsha, Balak and Balaam and the donkey and God believe that prayer works. He who you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.
And in that spirit, I want to read you a selection from something beautifully written by Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar that he posted on Facebook:
Religious thinkers and leaders worth their salt live their lives in constant cognizance of the yawning chasm between what religion could be and what it all too often is. This awareness is always painful and often excruciating…. Religious thinkers also know that if *they* are disillusioned by religion, it is hard to fathom what God must feel. But resentment is not the way. Here is how lives can become truly holy: you take the energy generated by frustration and disappointment and you turn it to a deeper form of Avodat Hashem, service of God. You see that religion is just as broken as the world in which it finds itself in, and you commit to loving more, not less. This is hard, the task of a lifetime. …Give your heart and your mind, give your soul and your life to building something different. And remember: without love– passionate, defiant, compassionate, justice-seeking love– nothing is possible. With it? Well, that’s what our lives ought to be about finding out.
Ma Tovu, how good.