Parashat Balak: The Power of Prayer
The Torah in Parashat Balak tells the famous story of Bilam’s failed attempts to place a curse on Beneh Yisrael. Bilam, a non-Jewish prophet, was summoned by Balak, the king of Moab, who felt threatened by Beneh Yisrael and thought that Bilam could curse them and thereby annihilate them. But G-d intervened and did not allow Bilam to place a curse, and had beautiful blessings come out of his mouth, instead.
The Haftara for Parashat Balak is a prophecy found in the Book of Micha, in which the prophet exhorts us to remember the incident of Balak and Bilam: “My nation, please remember what Balak, king of Moav, advised, and how Bilam son of Beor responded” (Micha 6:5). This verse is included among the “Zechirot” – the Pesukim which many people recite after Shaharit in the morning instructing us to remember certain events. More remarkably, the Gemara states that the Sages considered requiring the recitation of Parashat Balak each day, and decided against this measure only because they did not wish to overburden us.
The question arises, why is this incident so critical that it must be remembered each day? True, Bilam and Balak conspired to annihilate us – by way of a curse – and G-d intervened to rescue us. But this has happened countless times throughout our nation’s history – that a nation sought to destroy us, and we were saved, as we recite in the Haggada on Pesah: “in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Almighty rescues us from their hands.” What is so special about the story of Balak that we need to be reminded of it each day?
To answer this question, let us address a more basic question concerning this story. Why did G-d have to transform Bilam’s curse to a blessing? Why did He not simply let Bilam place the curse, and then have it accomplish nothing? Is G-d bound by Bilam’s curse?
The answer is that G-d does not, as a rule, break the laws of nature – and this includes the “law” that people’s words are very powerful. It is true that G-d could have protected Beneh Yisrael even if Bilam had pronounced a curse, just as He split the sea to save them from the Egyptians. But generally speaking, G-d prefers to operate within the natural order – and the power of speech is part of the natural order.
The Gemara in Masechet Ketubot (62) tells the startling story of Rabbi Yannai, who one Friday afternoon noticed that his son-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Rabbi Hiyya, did not return from the yeshiva. He immediately instructed the family to begin mourning, assuming that Rabbi Yehuda was dead. The truth is that Rabbi Yehuda was not dead, but was simply delayed. However, once Rabbi Yannai declared that Rabbi Yehuda was dead – he died. Words have that kind of power. And thus G-d changed Bilam’s words so that he uttered a blessing instead of a curse.
Our Sages teach us that G-d’s benevolence is 500 times greater than His quality of strict judgment; the power of goodness always exceeds the power of evil, many times over. Hence, if Bilam’s words could have had a catastrophic effect on Beneh Yisrael, we cannot even imagine how powerful an impact our words of prayer can have. If negative words can have a very harmful effect, then words of sanctity can have an even greater beneficial effect.
In the aforementioned Pasuk, Micha tells us that we must remember the story of Balak and Bilam “Le’ma’an Da’at Sidkot Hashem,” which literally means, “so that you remember the righteousness of G-d.” We may, however, understand this phrase differently, in light of the Gemara’s comment prayer is referred to as “Sedek” (“righteousness”). If we follow this meaning of “Sedek,” then this verse could be read to mean that by remembering the story of Balak and Bilam, we remind ourselves of the power of prayer. When we see how powerful Bilam’s words were, to the point where G-d found it necessary to change the words into words of blessing, we appreciate just how powerful prayer can be.
Too often, people become cynical towards prayer. They dismiss the idea that prayer is effective and beneficial, and see it as just a traditional ritual which we perform, which does not have any real impact. But this is not the case at all. There is no such thing as a wasted prayer. Each and every word of prayer is cherished by G-d, who answers each one – though not necessarily in the manner we want. Sometimes a prayer will have an effect upon somebody else at a different time and place – but it will certainly have an effect. If Bilam’s curses could have destroyed an entire nation, then undoubtedly our words of prayer could build and create, and bring down abundant blessing upon us and all mankind.