I - maybe we - tend to think of Our Story as encapsulated in the exodus from Mitzrayim and the entry into the Promised Land. But our story is more than leaving and arriving. Most of it is the story of living in the desert, of journeying, and of being on the way. And that certainly captures most of my life - and maybe our lives. Just as we want to skip over all those endless details of sacrifices, priestly vestments, sanctuaries, red heifers, and bizarre diseases, so too do we want to skip over or regard as of less interest the minutiae of each day. Between the high points, there is a lot of desert. Yet, can it be that what makes up the bulk of our lives is not worth paying attention to?
This week's parsha has one of the best stories of being on the way - the story of King Balak and Baalam. In fact, we remember this story in each service when we sing "Ma Tovu." This is a story of curses turned into blessings. And, surely, there is nothing more important for us than blessing in living through our personal "desert days."
This is the parsha in which King Balak sent Baalam, the greatest magician in the world, to curse the children of Israel so they would die. The focus is on this action, so for a moment this story obscures the fact that our ancestors were wandering in the desert, gathering the manna, thinking it was just another in a chain of endless days of sameness, completely unaware that disaster was being prepared for them. In fact, maybe they never knew just how close they had come and that they had every reason to make these potentially last moments significant in some way.
Imagine them, down below while Baalam was going up to the mountain top overlooking them. There he was, making the proper sacrifices - seven rams and bullocks on seven altars. There was Baalam, standing above the Israelites, arms outstretched, ready to pronounce the curse. He opened his mouth to say the words of death, the words of power. And . . . for a moment, the words hung there in mid-air. And then the words that were intended to be curses tumbled, down, down, . . . and were transformed . . . and landed as blessings: "Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk'notecha, Yisrael." "How good are Jacob's tents and Israel's dwelling places."
Was this a one-time event (or even fable), or is it the essence of each of our days? Is this merely life in the desert, or is this the ineffable story of the world's people?
I contend that today, as then, there are many who stand on mountains. There are many Balaks readying the curses to destroy others.
Mountains are good places from which to send forth curses. If words have weight, then gravity is with you. And mountains affirm power and the right of those who stand there to curse those who are beneath them. And if the mountain is high enough, those below hardly look like people or they might even be invisible. How much easier it is to curse from an "overlook".
So the imperative of Balak is to turn inward and outward - to examine where we stand, what words come from our mouths, and where are we sending those words. We cannot rely on divine intervention to protect intended victims. We must intervene and control ourselves. We may pray: May the source of blessing again turn curses into blessing. But even more, what can we do for the places and the people in them who have suffered the curses of others or who will suffer them? What can we do to transform curses into blessing in oh so many places - far too many places - in the world?
As we learn from this parsha, life in the desert is anything but life with no work for us to do.