By Rabbi Dovid Markel
Every day we begin our prayers with the statement of the gentile prophet, Bilaam (Bamidbar 24:5) “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!”
This expresses that not only were Bilaam’s curses transformed into blessings, but the importance of the blessings is central to the Jewish identity and destiny so much so that they are stated at the commencement of our daily prayers.
The secret of transforming curses into blessings is conveyed in G-d’s statement to Bilaam, (Bamidbar 22:12) “G-d said to Bilaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.”
The reason that is impossible to curse Israel is because they are blessed, not because G-d does not wish to curse them. A curse is only an expression of the evil that is already present, but in a situation where one is cognizant of blessing the curses are transformed into blessing.
This concept can be better understood through the Talmudic statement concerning the study of Torah and the fulfillment of Mitzvot without proper intent. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) states: “One should always occupy himself with Torah and good deeds, though it be not for their own sake, for out of (mitoch) good work without purpose comes [Torah and Mitzvot] for its own sake.”
Interestingly, the Talmudic statement of the study of Torah for personal motives rather than G-dly ones is tangential to a conversation of the episode of Bilaam and his curses of Israel. In the same manner that from the study of Torah for not its own sake comes Torah for its sake, in the same vein our curses can be transformed into blessings.
The Talmud (Taanit 7a) states of one who learns Torah with improper intent “Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake his learning becomes an elixir of life to him…but, whoever occupies himself with the Torah not for its own sake, it becomes to him a deadly poison”
When one learns Torah with proper intent it is a blessing, but with improper intent it is a curse. Yet, nevertheless the Talmud expressed that one should learn Torah that causes a cursed poison, because from the curse will come blessing.
This is not understood; for even if one will reach a point where their Torah is blessed, their past actions seem to be accursed and negative!
However, in truth this is not the case, what this Talmudic aphorism conveys at its most essential level is the transformation that takes place retroactively in one’s past actions.
The word mitoch—of the sentence “from good work without purpose comes [Torah and Mitzvot] for its own sake”—means the inner depth. What this imparts is that though consciously we may be cognizant of external drives in the fulfillment of the commandments, our true drive, which may be deeply embedded in the sub-consciousness of our soul is that we desire to be unified with G-d.
When we realize that this was the intent of our actions all along, our past actions are retrospectively seen in that light and transformed into an elixir of life. This is the essential point expressed in the verse (ibid) “You shall not curse the people because they are blessed.”
Any curse that one can be associated with Israel is super-imposed on their identity, and is not intrinsically them—in essence “they are blessed.” The essence of the Jewish Soul is one with G-d, and is therefore by definition blessed.
It is this point that G-d told Bilaam. I view Israel at their essential level of blessedness and therefore they are unable to be cursed—for when their connection to G-dliness is revealed at their most essential level, they are the very definition of blessing.
It is this point that we wish to reveal in Israel each morning in the recitation of Bilaam’s blessing; that we should reveal the essence of our G-dly soul, within which we are blessed and thus, as expressed in Bilaam’s prophecy we are deserving of the Messianic era.