Choosing Curses (Parashat Balak)
It is easy to assume that words are just labels for objects and movements and ideas. That to translate from one language to another is just to find the series of sounds we make that parallel the exact same concept. That is to say: New London Synagogue is a synagogue, from the Greek συναγωγή, meaning “place of gathering”. We can translate that back and forth from the Hebrew Beit Knesset, “house of gathering”. Different sounds, but essentially the same meaning. So surely it doesn’t matter which language we are using.
Except within the field of linguistics, there are long arguments on whether and how the language of the speaker affects the mind of the speaker. We can all agree that culture shapes language, but maybe, some hypothesise, language affects cognition, too. The most famous example of this is regarding the colour spectrum. Speakers of languages like Zuni, a Native American language, have a harder time distinguishing between blues and greens because the Zuni language classifies blues and greens together as one colour. Likewise, English speakers are poorer performers of distinguishing between shades of blue than Russian speakers, because Russian has a mandatory linguistic distinction between lighter and darker blues.
Concepts of gender also shift greatly across cultures that assign gender to nouns. There is some evidence that speakers of languages that assign a particular gender to a particular noun are more likely to describe that noun in terms of the stereotypes of that gender. My favourite book title on this subject is George Lakoff’s work, which is called: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. This is a reference to the Dyirbal language, an Aboriginal Australian language, which has masculine, feminine, and neutral nouns; and while animate objects are generally masculine, the feminine category covers women, fire, violence, and danger. The proposal of linguistic relativism is that this is affected by views of culture, but also continually affects the perspective of the speaker.
The area in which this is the clearest to me is the constant obstacle of speaking about Jewish ideas in a Christian language. We are constantly pushed by our language into categories that exist in Christian theology but not in Jewish theology. As Jews, we are swimming against the current when discussing our religious ideas in English. When we translate, for example, tzedakah to charity, we are left with the taste of generosity in our mouths. But while giving tzedakah and giving to charity might look identical, tzedakah comes from the root word “justice” - it is a sacred obligation to build a just society, not an optional act of generosity. This is one reason that it’s so important to keep the Hebrew language alive in prayer and in Torah; translation is of paramount importance to those of us who are not fluent in Biblical Hebrew, but we must remain aware that there is a layer of English-speaking culture that is laid over the translated text.
Language is important.
This, I think, is the answer to a classical problem in today’s Torah portion. Parashat Balak is a strange parashah because it takes place largely outside the Israelite camp. King Balak has called the prophet Bilaam to curse the Children of Israel and, as we read, those curses turned to blessings in Bilaam’s mouth. But why does any of this matter? This story has no effect on the narrative or experiences of the Israelites. They apparently don’t even know this is occurring outside their camp. By the time we reach chapter 25 and turn back to our ancestors, they are just continuing their adventures, undisturbed by the drama of Balak and Bilaam. So what gives?
Perhaps we could say the blessings ended up being significant to us. After all, the words of Bilaam’s blessing - ‘how goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, Israel’ - have become a blessing we say regularly. However, surely the Divine did not require these words to come from the mouth of Bilaam. Surely if Bilaam had walked to his place outside the camp, King Balak by his side, and uttered a curse on the Israelite people, it would have made no difference if God was not putting power into the words of the curse.
But then again, language is important. Language shapes how we see the world, and how we see the world shapes how we act. We are not and have never been a people who buy into “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”.
So says Joseph ibn Kaspi, 14th Century commentator and grammarian, curses have power because people give them power. There is a subjective reality to curses. We don’t need to believe that the Divine is involved in enacting the curse, or that supernatural forces exist behind them, because we are the enacters. If the Children of Israel, vulnerable in the wilderness, new saplings trying to grow toward the sun, had learned of a curse given by the famous prophet Bilaam, it would have shaken us to our core. The Divine decision to transform those curses into blessings was a protective measure. Likewise, Abarvanel writes (in the 15th Century) that had King Balak and the surrounding nations learned of a curse on the Children of Israel, it would have given them the confidence to attack us. Those simple words, supposedly meaningless in terms of supernatural force, would have changed history. Curses, it turns out, are not only about divine power, they are also about human power, about spiritual and emotional power contained in human speech.
What we hear, and what we say, shapes our minds and our hearts, and therefore shapes our actions.
Our choices to put blessings and curses into the world matter.
This is why lashon hara, evil speech, is considered to have so much weight in our tradition. As it is put in Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs), מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן - death and life are in the power of the tongue. Words matter, not because they hold supernatural power, but because they hold natural power. We are now entering the Three Weeks, the period of commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple, and one retelling of the days prior to that calamity places the blame for the destruction on the doorstep of lashon hara, of evil speech. Words can tear down empires.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is the inverse. If it turns out that curses have power, then it must also be the case that blessings have power. If words can tear down, then words can also build. If words can wound, then words can also heal.
We can choose to be people who bring blessings into the world.
One of the most confounding elements of the story of King Balak, in my opinion, is his initial conversation with the Prophet Bilaam. Balak says: “I know that whomever you bless is blessed indeed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” Balak knows that blessing is an option. He could have asked to have his people blessed, could have requested blessings of safety and prosperity, with the full belief that Bilaam’s blessings are always upheld.
King Balak’s downfall in our story is the decision to bring curses into the world instead of blessings. The option was always right there in front of him.
We should not make that same mistake. As the Divine charged our Father Avraham: You shall be a blessing.