You all know the chant from our childhood: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” And when we think about it, we realize that not all childhood wisdom rings true.
This week we learn of an authentic prophet who, surprisingly in the Tanakh, is not Jewish. His name? Balaam. His reputation? International. We are told that his powers are immense and that he receives messages from God’s own self. In commissioning him to curse the Israelites, Balak, the king of Moav declares, “For I know that whomsoever you bless is blessed and whomsoever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:7)
Commenting on this, the traditional commentator Ovadiah S’forno (around 1475-1550) wrote: “This [verse] is to Balaam’s credit in that it teaches he was able not only to inflict (curses) only!”
Some who doubt the Torah’s truths might say that spoken blessing and curse are figments of our imaginations. But, in our media driven age, words that we once thought would evaporate upon saying them live on to be repeated with the worst connotation.
Rabbi David Nesenoff was the one who innocently asked journalist Helen Thomas last month what she thought should happen to bring about peace in the Middle East. Her vituperative, outrageous comments caused her to resign within 48 hours.
End of story? No. Within a few days after the incident, Rabbi Nesenoff received more than 25,000 e-mails. Many of them were vicious, anti-Semitic and personal, replete with death threats against him and his family.
To discredit him, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC showed a clip of Rabbi Nesenoff seemingly making fun of a Catholic priest, speaking in a terrible Mexican accent while wearing a clerical collar. Next to him was a man seemingly satirizing the look and accent of a Charedi Jew. Keith Olbermann blasted Rabbi Nesenoff for being insensitive, if not racist.
What Mr. Olbermann apparently did not know was that the clip was from a recent Purim spiel at the synagogue! The skit involved Rabbi Nesenoff playing the part of a priest, while his good friend, a Roman Catholic priest, played a rabbi! It was not a crude display of cultural insensitivity, rather the kind of topsy-turvy humor that reigns in the Jewish community on Purim!
Our words live on, which is what gives them such power. In the end, it is we who bless or curse ourselves through our words. Our words often take on meanings far different than we originally intended, which is why our tradition teaches that we should be more sparing in our use of them.
For who knew that Balaam, the prophet engaged to curse our ancestors, would end up offering a blessing so powerful that we read it first thing each morning in our Shacharit service?
Balaam took up his theme and declared: “Mah Tovu Oha-lei-cha Ya-akov, Mish-ke-no-tei-cha Yisrael!” Or, how lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24.5) These words are so powerful they are a blessing for all time. May we merit them by taking care with our own words as well.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)