Our portion this week begins with the king of Moab enlisting the support of Balaam, the prophet to defeat the Israelites with the following sentiment:
"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." (Numbers, 22:5 - 6)
Look closely at the last line: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed." Don’t you find it curious that with the knowledge of this power, that the king chose the prophet to curse another people rather than bless his own? His response to a perceived threat became so great that he allowed his anger to lash out at another as opposed to caring for his people’s needs first.
Anger is such a problem for so many of us. The Talmud suggests that when we are considering someone as a friend, we need to first see how they deal with their anger, because in anger we tend to lose sight of what really matters. Further it warns that one who loses his temper is exposed to the torments of Gehenna, forgets his learning and becomes stupid, and his sins will outnumber his merits (Nedarim 22a-b). That is not to say there is not a time for anger. Aristotle reminds us that anger is appropriate with the right person, at the right moment, to the right degree and for the right purpose (Nichomachean Ethics). The Talmud also agrees with this sentiment in a number of places. However, when it is not appropriate, it can have numerous deleterious affects on oneself and one’s relationships.
Before Balaam attempted to fulfill Balak's charge to curse the Israelites, he prayed for deeper support. Even though he did not receive that inner reassurance that the task he was agreeing to was a right one, he chose to take it on. But on the road to Moab, he had a striking and unexpected moment of revelation. His donkey suddenly failed to obey him, and finally stopped in his tracks. The donkey saw what Balaam could not. Balaam’s blindness to the logic of the situation led him to fall into a fit of anger at his donkey. When both the donkey and the angel of God reminded him.
"Then the Eternal One uncovered Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand, and he bowed to the ground." (22:31) When Balaam remembered that Greater Presence, the Angel sent to meet him on the way, he was led to bless the people Israel, even though he had been hired to curse them.
Let us try to refrain from anger being our first reaction. George Elliott teaches, “We hand folks over to God’s mercy and show none of it ourselves.” Anger and negative affirmations (curses) blind us to our connection to God and God’s blessings. Blessing is the path to truth and relationship.
We are reminded to refrain from anger with the words of Balaam as we walk in our synagogue doors and open our prayer books: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"