Parshat Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
“Say what you mean; and mean what you say.”
Whenever my grandfather offered me this admonition, I knew I was either being asked to clarify something I’d said or to verify that which I’d asserted.
In either case, the weight of his words caused me to consider carefully the
significance of my speech. In my family — and for our people more generally — words, both those we utter and pen, have power. We are judged by our words and therefore must be responsible with both what we say and how we speak.
In “the Book of Balaam” as the Talmud (Baba Batra 15a) knows this week’s Torah portion, better known to many of us as “Balak,” we witness this King of Moab actively encouraging the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. In due course, God first forbids and then relents and gives in to Balaam’s entreaties to participate in this spectacle. But only on the condition that he do as God instructs. And in keeping with the definition of a biblical prophet, wherein Balaam’s words are in actuality God’s, the prophet’s erstwhile curses redound upon Israel as blessings.
How does this come to be? The surface answer is that Balaam’s words, as is true for all biblical prophets, comes from a divine source. But what does this mean for us? Where might we find words of comfort that may be used to calm those who are feeling cursed?
The poet Ranier Maria Rilke offers the following answer as to where we can draw inspiration for easing the burden of others. Says Rilke, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the quiet and simple words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find the words.”
Speak from your heart, from your kishkes, from your experience, Rilke counsels, and understand that everyone is struggling with what it means to be human, to live a life among others, to live a life worthy of emulation. What all of us share in common, after all, is that life takes its toll on everyone; and no one gets out of here whole. Thus, we can care best for one another by speaking to one another in our own voice and out of the depths of our own striving and struggle, hurt and pain.
“Say what you mean; and mean what you say,” my grandfather taught me. Sincerity, after all, is the value of speech that is sacred. For in our house, the alternative to this was to hear Grandpa say, “I see your lips moving, Aaron, but I don’t hear you saying anything.”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin senior rabbinic pulpit rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.