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Two Minutes of Torah: Balak - A Misunderstanding of words

On the wall of my office I have a short paragraph from Judah ibn Tibbon, who lived in the twelfth century; it begins ‘If you write anything, read it through a second time, for no one can avoid slips.’ His words may be over eight hundred years old, but they offer a warning which may be even more important in our modern world. Today there are so many more methods of written communication, and so the potential for slips has increased exponentially. And with the immediacy of many new forms of correspondence, there is a pressure to click send before reading it through properly once, let alone twice.

Reading something through for a second time not only ensures that we avoid written mistakes (spelling, grammar, etc.), but it also ensures that we consider the different ways in which what we write might be read. How many of us have had that experience of writing something down, assuming that the intention behind the words was clear, only to have it completely misunderstood and misconstrued by the recipient?

In this week’s Torah portion Bilaam’s words were very clearly intended for one purpose, but they emerged very differently. Having seen how the Israelites defeated the Amorites, King Balak feared the approaching Israelite masses, and so sent for Bilaam, who appears to have a skill in uttering highly effective curses. God did not want this to happen, but eventually permitted Bilaam to go, warning: ‘if the men come to call you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you, that shall you do’ (Numbers 22:20). This should have been an indication to Bilaam that curses would be difficult, but he nonetheless accepted the invitation.

Having already failed to curse the Israelites once, Bilaam moved to Mount Peor, and standing up there, looking over the Israelite camp, he uttered the famous line: mah tovu ohelecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – how good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel (Numbers 24:5). Bilaam was supposed to curse Israel, and instead he offered a blessing, one which was not just nice in the moment, but one which we ourselves adopted into our own liturgy for when we enter the synagogue.

Bilaam knew he would only be to speak words permitted by God. This was not a case of misunderstanding, misspeaking or misinterpretation, but it is amazing to see the way in which the intention behind words can be completely transformed. A curse became a blessing, and then that blessing became part of our liturgy.

It is rare that the words we speak, or write are so far removed as to confuse blessing with curse or vice versa. But the story of Bilaam is a reminder of the power which our words possess, and that our words may be conceived, understood and used in ways which we never imagined when writing or uttering them. As Bilaam spoke I doubt that he realized he was composing a prayer for the Israelites to recite almost three thousand years later. And yet at the start of each service we repeat his famous line.

And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: [audio]

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Rabbi Danny
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