Can Curses Do Harm?            

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Balak, describes the fascinating tale of the gentile prophet, Bilaam, whose words were incorporated into the text of the Torah. He was hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Jews, but it is not clear why he wanted to harm them.

Balak was aware that the Jews had won a great victory over Sichon, the Amorite king, and had confiscated his land. However, this was not a war of aggression. They had simply requested to pass through his land on the way to Eretz Yisrael. 

Sichon did not merely refuse this innocuous request: He used it as a casus belli to come out and initiate a war with the Jews. With Hashem’s help, the Jews were victorious and, as the adage says, to the victor goes the spoils. 

The reality was that Balak had nothing to fear from the Jews. They did not covet his land, nor anything else he possessed. He could have made contact with them and established friendly relations. Unfortunately, antisemitism is a very powerful, and irrational, emotion. Balak projected evil characteristics and intentions onto the Jews. He couldn’t tolerate their proximity to his kingdom; he wanted to drive them away.

But Balak was conflicted. He hated and simultaneously feared the Jews, and therefore needed to weaken them by resorting to “supernatural” schemes. He engaged the services of Bilaam, who had earned a reputation for his devastating “curses.” The idea was that the combination of Bilaam’s maledictions and Balak’s military action would be sufficient to solve the dilemma.

This story presents a basic problem: Does a curse, mere words uttered by a human being, have the power to alter any aspect of reality? The intuitive answer would be a resounding NO! Man is a product of the laws of nature; his divine soul enables him to gain understanding of the forces that govern the natural order. This knowledge, which gives him tremendous ability to manipulate those forces, is the basis for mankind’s amazing technological progress. 

Of course, all humans are limited in that we can only operate within the context of the natural order; we can’t exercise supernatural power to perform acts that contradict it. No man can perform a miracle or pronounce a mantra that could produce objective consequences. 

Why, then, did Hashem act to stop Bilaam from uttering his curses? Why not let him say whatever he wants? Wouldn’t this demonstrate the futility of ascribing supernatural powers to a human?

The Torah is based on the deepest understanding of the human psyche, and it prohibits us from cursing a fellow Jew. While a noxious utterance has no real power, it can still cause great harm. Man’s mental makeup is fragile; he is very sensitive to the opinions of others, especially when they are pronounced by charismatic, imposing personalities. If someone like that tells an impressionable person that he is a worthless failure who will never succeed, the “prophecy” can be self-fulfilling. 

One of the great tasks of life is to overcome the need for social approval. It is not easy, as man, by nature, is emotionally insecure and derives strength from the “endorsement” of others. 

I believe that the Jewish people have a particular weakness in this area. There are many practical reasons for this. As Bilaam said, “Behold, it is a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations.” Our lengthy exile and dispersion, and the extreme antisemitism we have experienced, have taken their toll. 

The antisemitic impulse is intrinsic to the human psyche. Theodore Herzl thought that the condition of the Jews as strangers in other peoples’ lands was the prime cause of Jew hatred. He reasoned that, if the Jews had an independent country, the problem would be solved. Herzl was greatly mistaken. No nation is more defamed and hated than Israel. Witness the U.N. report that condemns Israel’s conduct in last summer’s Gaza war.

The sad part is that the Jews are affected by this ill-spirited criticism, which sometimes leads them to make faulty decisions in order to gain approval. All this is in vain. Hashem forced Bilaam to transform the curses into blessings. 

It is only through faith in Hashem that we can be strong. As long as we remember that it is His approval, alone, that we desperately need, we can withstand the disapproval of all others.

Shabbat shalom.