B”H
BALAK
TORAH BRIEF
BOUNDARIES
 
Bilam, the heathen profit, known for his ability to curse, finds himself compelled to utter blessings in place of his intended curses.
One of the most beautiful curses-turned blessings was the one we recite daily in our morning prayers, Mah Tovu:
“How goodly are your tents, O. Jacob, you dwellings Israel.”
The Talmud states that he was inspired when he saw how the entrances of the tents of the Jews were structured so that they don’t face other entrances. They made a concerted effort to protect the privacy of others.
This powerful praise of the Jewish people can be understood more broadly as respecting boundaries: Boundaries between neighbors; boundaries between generations; boundaries between men and women; boundaries between the Jewish people and other nations, etc.
Bilam was also the prophet of Moshiach. It may be suggested that all of his blessings were directed at empowering the Jewish people to deal with all the challenges of Galus-exile and facilittateGeulah-Redemption.
In the blessing of Mah Tovu, G‑d gives us a glimpse into the present day and age when boundaries have been so compromised.
Our challenge today is to respect boundaries even as we focus on fostering and strengthening unity.
 
 
 
THE POWERFUL IMMUNE SYSTEM
 
Countering Speech with Speech
Bilam was hired by Balak, the king of Moav, to curse the Jewish nation as they were travelling on their way to conquer the land of Cana’an. Our Sages teach that Balak knew that no force armed with conventional weapons could prevail over the Jewish people because they possessed some ”secret power.” Balak researched the matter and discovered that the power of the Jewish people lay in their mouth or voice. This is what Isaac told Jacob when he impersonated his brother Esau and received his father’s blessings: “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.” Taken literally, Isaac was referring to the arm coverings Jacob wore to make his arms feel as hairy as Esau’s. The tenor and content of his voice, however, was “the voice of Jacob.” It was his natural soft-spoken, refined and G‑d invoking voice.
In the spiritual sense, the Jewish people do not win their battles and wars through the power of the sword, even when they fight a conventional war. They have access to a much more powerful weapon, the unconventional power of prayer.
When Balak discovered the real source of the power of the Jewish people, he sought to counter it with the parallel power of Bilam, whose verbal curses were known to be quite effective in vanquishing an enemy.
 
Curses-Blessings-Curses
All this serves as a backdrop to the ensuing events.
Bilam lost control of his ability to curse the Jews. G‑d thwarted his plan by compelling him to utter some of the most beautiful blessings in place of the curses he had in mind.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 195b) states that, in the end, his blessings that were intended as curses eventually reverted to the curses he intended in the first place, with one notable exception, the blessing “Mah Tovu-How goodly are your tents O Jacob and your dwellings O Israel,” which refers to the Houses of Prayer and the Houses of Study. These blessings did not revert to the curses he intended to cause these houses to falter.
Two questions come to mind:
First, how could it be that Bilam’s blessings turned into curses?. Didn’t G‑d put the blessings into Bilam’s mouth? Wasn’t Bilam’s power the power of speech, and not the power of thought? Why would his mere mortal and vile intention override the Divine power vested in his words?
Second, why were these curses-turned-into-blessings concerning the Houses of Prayer and Study different from all the other blessings which reverted to his intended curses?
Divide and Conquer
To answer these questions, it will be helpful to refer to the technique Bilam used to attempt to curse the Jews. Balak took Bilam to places where he could see only a section of the people (Numbers 22:41 and 23:27). Balak sought to separate the Jews into different sections, to thereby isolate one segment from another. That way, Balak surmised, Bilam’s curses would be more effective.
What did Balak intend with his attempt to get Bilam to see and curse subsections of the people?
The answer is that in order for a curse to work, the intended recipients of the curse must be vulnerable. What makes a person most vulnerable is his or her isolation from the rest of the community. Just as in the physical world, where people are most likely to become victims when they are alone, so too in the emotional and spiritual realms.  People are more vulnerable to negative influences and energy when they are alone.
Just as there is strength in numbers when we need to fight against a common enemy, so too if we want to thwart an attack from hostile forces it is important that we have the power of the collective.
Although Bilam’s blessings were very powerful, it was still possible for us to suffer from his intended curses. The reason for this is that to have the power to be receptive to blessings, even Divine blessings, one needs to acquire the power of unity.
Unity is the vessel for blessings. Without a proper vessel the blessings can be squandered. It is like pouring water from a faucet without having a glass to receive the water; it will all go to waste.
Second, disunity is actually a force that renders us most vulnerable so that we do not have the power to resist the malign power of Bilam’s intended curses. Whenever the Jewish people lost their unity, they became vulnerable to the hostile forces seeking their harm. Bilam’s intent, to curse them, was able to take root because they were fragmented and their spiritual immune system was severely compromised; they did not have the requisite vessel to receive the blessings.
 
Destruction of Second Temple Not [Just] a Punishment
One example of this awful phenomenon of disunity and its concomitant curses at its worst was the destruction of the Second Temple, which the Talmud states was caused by senseless hatred.  The conventional wisdom is that the destruction of the Temple was a punishment for the sin of senseless hatred.
Upon deeper reflection, and in light of the foregoing analysis of vulnerability, it is apparent that it was not simply a punishment, but that it was their senseless hatred that caused them to lose their immunity and resistance to the curses of Bilam (and others). Senseless hatred gave the curse of destruction fertile ground in which to take root and wreak havoc.
While Bilam’s blessings were vocalized, we were still vulnerable to his intended curses.
 
Institutions of Unity
There was one curse-turned-blessing that did not revert to the curse.  That was, as stated above, the blessing for the Houses of Prayer and the Houses of Study. What is unique about these institutions is that they take the powerful Jewish traditions of prayer and learning into a structure that unifies the community. Rather than pray and learn by ourselves, remaining vulnerable to Bilam’s true intentions, we create an impregnable wall that causes the curses to bounce off and provides us with the vessel to contain the powerful Divine blessings that were channeled through the mouth of Bilam.
Bilam’s most powerful blessing, which was intended by him to be a curse, concerned Moshiach. “I see him, but not now. I perceive him, but he is not near.” According to Maimonides, this verse and those that follow are about Moshiach. Although Bilam prophesied about Moshiach’s coming, his intention was to frustrate that coming and the advent of our final Redemption.
While his blessing will certainly come true regardless of his intention, Bilam’s intention had the effect of prolonging our time in Galus because we remain so vulnerable as a result of our divisions.
With the power of Jewish unity demonstrated particularly through communal prayer and Torah study, permeated with sincere Ahavas Yisroel-Love of Israel, we can deflect all Bilam’s intended curses that can cause further delay of the Redemption, and make us receptive to the Redemption without any further delay.