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Parashat Ki Teseh: The Transformation of Bilam’s Curse

The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teseh (23:4-7) introduces the prohibition against marrying a descendant from the nations of Amon and Moab. One of the reasons given for this prohibition is the fact that Moab hired Bilam to place a curse upon Beneh Yisrael, in an effort to annihilate them. However, the Torah says, "Hashem your G-d did not agree to listen to Bilam, and Hashem your G-d transformed the curse for you into a blessing, because Hashem your G-d loves you."

The Torah here speaks of Hashem "transforming" Bilam’s curse into a blessing ("Va’yahafoch…Et Ha’kelala Li’bracha"). But if we look at the story of Bilam, back in Parashat Balak, this does not seem to be what happened. No curse was spoken. Bilam wanted to place a curse on the people, but this wish never materialized. He did not place a curse, because G-d did not allow him to utter a curse, forcing him to bless Beneh Yisrael, instead. Why does the Torah say that G-d "transformed" the curse to a blessing?

The key to answering this question might be found in a seemingly peculiar story told in Masechet Moed Katan (9a-b). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai advised his son, Rabbi Elazar, to go receive a blessing from a certain pair of righteous scholars. Rabbi Elazar went to these sages, and they said to him the following: "May it be His will that you plant but not harvest, bring in but not bring out, bring out and not bring in, your house shall be destroyed, your lodging place shall be occupied, your table shall be confused, and you shall not see a good year."

Rabbi Elazar, baffled by what he heard, returned to his father and told him about this very strange "blessing" which sounded, of course, like anything but a blessing…

Rabbi Shimon explained to him that indeed, these were all great blessings. For example, "you shall plant but not harvest" meant that he should produce children who would not die. "You shall bring in and not bring out" meant that he should bring in women to marry his sons, and they would live and not die. "Your house shall be destroyed" meant that his grave, his final resting place, should never be built for him. And so on. Each "curse" was interpreted as a blessing.

We must understand, why did these Rabbis formulate their blessing this way? If they truly wanted to bless Rabbi Elazar, why didn’t they give an explicit blessing – rather than a blessing which sounded like a curse and needed a clever interpretation?

The answer might be that the real power of a blessing stems not from the words themselves, but rather from the thoughts, feelings and intentions with which the words are spoken. These Rabbis wanted their blessing to have the most powerful impact, and so they devised a strategy whereby Rabbi Elazar would need to consult with his father, the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Rabbi Shimon would interpret the blessing for them, and thus impart his lofty intentions into the blessing. This made the blessing especially impactful.

With this in mind, we can perhaps revisit the story of Bilam.

Bilam knew that the power of a blessing, or a curse, lies mainly in the thoughts and intentions of the speaker. And so when G-d forced him to pronounce blessings instead of a curse, he tried to "outsmart" G-d. He pronounced the blessings with the most hostile, sinister intentions. The words were beautiful blessings, but he uttered them with contempt and hatred, intending each blessing as a devastating curse, figuring that they would then have the harmful effect upon the nation which he desired.

However, as the Torah says here in Parashat Ki-Teseh, "G-d did not agree to listen to Bilam." He paid absolutely no attention to Bilam’s thoughts. He did not listen at all. He paid no heed to what Bilam was thinking. And in this way, his curse was truly transformed into a blessing. Bilam spoke his words with the intention of their functioning as a curse, but G-d ignored his intention – such that the words ended up being a blessing, testifying to G-d’s endless and unbridled love for His cherished nation.

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