Parasha Balak – The Power of Praise

I was browsing through the stacks in our synagogue library this week when I came across a book published ten years ago by one Lita Epstein. I had never heard of the author but I was intrigued by the title of the book:   If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Say it in Yiddish: The Book of Yiddish Insults and Curses.  As some of you know, Yiddish is a very colorful language. I’ll  share a few  a few choice curses from this book. Just to be clear the definition of curse is an invocation for harm or injury to come upon one. I won’t be using any “swear words”, in English or in Yiddish.

Ale tsores vos id hob oyf mayn hart-en zoln oygeyen tsu dayn kop)  All the troubles that weigh on my heart should fall on your head!

Migulgel zol er vern in a heng-lay-ter – bay tog zol er hengen, un bay nacht zol er brene . He should be transformed into a chandelier to hang by day and to burn by night!

S’zol dir vaks-en a gesh-ver oyf-en pupik . May a boil grow on your belly button!

Ale tsey-en zoln dir a-roys-falen, nor eyner zol dir blayben – oyf tson-vey-tik.  May all your teeth fall out except one to give you a toothache!

All this by way of introducing our Parasha for this week. The Israelites are on the march to the Land of Canaan. After 40 years in the desert, they are about to enter the land. They have conquered Sichon, king of the Ammorites, and Og, the King of Bashan. They are encamped outside of Moab. The King of Moab, King Balak, is determined to do battle with the Israelites. He has seen the fate of the other Kings that have dared to fight against Israel. King Balak decides to get something that SIchon, king of the Ammorites and Og King of Bashan did not have. Balak feels he needs an edge, a secret weapon, with which to go into battle. So, he tries to acquire for himself cutting edge technology, at least for 1250 BCE.

He sends emissaries to Bilaam, a pagan prophet.  According to the Torah, Whoever Bilaam blesses, is blessed. And whoever Bilaam curses, is cursed. As is the case in much of the Torah, the text is condensed, and a lot is left unexplained. For example, I would have liked to know how Balak went about finding a person in this line of work! Did he google him? Does Bilaam have more “Likes” on his Facebook page? Is he highly rated on Yelp? Did Balak find him through Emily’s List?  Sometimes I forget how we ever found anybody before we had computers, but somehow Balak found Bilaam and hired him on.

At this point, it seems that the story can go one of two ways. Remember that Bilaam deals in both blessings and curses – whoever he blesses is blessed, whoever he curses, is cursed. Will King Balak hire Bilaam to bless? Or, will King Balak hire Bilaam to curse? If he hires Bilaam to bless, perhaps he will ask BIlaam to bless him. If he hires Bilaam to curse, he will surely ask him to curse the Israelites.

Just like Bilaam, each one of us has the power to raise people up or bring people down with our words. It does not have to be, as in our Yiddish examples, with a curse uttered intentionally. In many ways, our self-perception and therefore our self-esteem is molded by the words and actions of significant others in our lives – by our parents, siblings, grandparents,  friends, neighbors, teachers  ,  clergy,  coaches, and so forth.  For example, when I was in the fifth grade, our music curriculum consisted of singing. There were no school bands, no elementary school orchestras. The music teacher led us in learning the American songbook. That year, I was chosen by our music teacher to be part of a small group of classmates who would lead the singing for the annual school holiday celebration. My teacher told me I had a talent for singing. That experience not only raised my self-esteem but made me notice my own voice — as others seemed to like it. Her comment was a gift that stayed with me for the rest of my life. It gave me the confidence to try out for the high school musical. It gave me the confidence to lead the congregation in my synagogue. But that same music teacher divided her regular classes into two groups – “singers” and “non-singers”. The non-singers were told they simply had to listen when the class sang – they were to remain silent!!! ! Just as it was a blessing for me to be told I  had a good voice , I imagine it  must have hurt my peers  who  were  labeled as “non-singers” by our fifth-grade music teacher. Who knows what the long-term effect was of being told at age 10 that you should not sing?

We all know the word for “Blessed” in Hebrew – Barukh. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word “Barukh” can also be translated as “praised”. When we praise another person, we truly bless them as well.  Praise is a blessing that we can bestow upon one another every day. A few months ago Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about a remarkable woman he had known, the late Lena Rustin. She founded a speech clinic in London that treated children who stuttered.  The average patient was 5 years old. But Lena Rustin did not just address the technical aspects of achieving fluent speech. She focused on the entire individual and their families. She believed that for a child to stop stuttering, relationships within the family had to change. She gave each family member an assignment. Every day each family member had to find at least one thing that another family member did and praise them for it. This was especially important for the parents to do with each other. Lena Rustin hoped that this simple gesture, repeated daily, would help build family members self esteem and give them the confidence to change and to grow. Seeing this, the child who stuttered would find the courage to change as well. Follow up interviews revealed that not only had the stutterer been helped, but the marital relationship of the parents had improved. Many couples reported that it had saved their marriage!

Praise is a blessing.  A kind word can boost an individual, improve a marriage, and uplift a family. It is a simple gift we can give one another every day. Let us make an effort each day to find something for which to praise our spouse, praise our children,  praise our friends, praise our employees.

Shabbat Shalom