This week's portion, Balak, tells the story of Balaam, the prophet, who is hired by the Moabite king Balak to curse the Israelites as they move through his territory. Balaam is clearly a figure whose powers are renowned in the region, as Balak says: "For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed."
Balaam travels with Balak's messengers to the place where the Israelites are encamped and, four separate times, utters oracles not of curse but of blessing, including the famous words that form the opening to our daily service: Mah tovu ohaleha Ya'akov — "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob."
Balak is incensed at these blessings; clearly, these were the furthest thing from his mind when he hired Balaam. But the prophet went on to explain: "How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the Lord has not denounced?"
The sense of Balaam as faithful to God's commands in this portion is at odds with statements made elsewhere in the Bible about him.
For example, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites: "[The Moabites] hired against you Balaam, son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Yet the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam; the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you."
This account suggests that Balaam's intention and desire were, in fact, to curse the Israel-ites, but that God somehow intervened and forced the blessing from Balaam's mouth. The rabbis accept the second reading; Balaam is demonized in our tradition as a wicked and greedy man who sought to subvert God's will and bring about the downfall of the Israelites.
What to make of these two different portrayals — Baalaam as the prophet of God, who only speaks the words God places in his mouth, or a scoundrel bent on cursing?
In our lives, it is not always so easy to tell blessing from curse. While some things that befall us are unalloyed blessings, others will cause only pain and sorrow; but life's events do not usually come in neat little packages.
Life is much more ambiguous than that, and we often have to struggle to make sense of what might be a blessing or curse. Perhaps this is why the rabbis speak about the importance of hakarat ha-tov — having a positive outlook and trying to find the good in the situations that confront us, even if not immediately evident.
This practice of hakarat ha-tov is an important and challenging one. How often we fall into comfortable assumptions: allow first impressions to define situations, allow easy labels to shape the way we view people, rather than taking the time to explore the more nuanced realities.
I wonder how often we are guilty, like King Balak, of looking at challenging and difficult situations, setting out to heap curses on those we fear rather than engaging with them. I wonder how many of us can look beyond the obvious — the first impression — and find the potential for blessing that may lie in the Other: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."
Perhaps we could begin with Balaam himself — use our hakarat ha-tov to transform the curse with which he has been tarnished in our tradition back into the legacy of blessing that he proclaimed. And then we could turn to ourselves, examining those places in our lives where we have fallen too quickly and easily into cursing.
If we can change our attitudes and assumptions, and reach out to become a source of blessing ourselves, then perhaps we can someday merit to live the words Balaam pronounced: "The Lord their God is with them, and the acclaim of their Sovereign is in their midst."
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is the religious leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.