Volume 30 Issue 19 25 Jun 2021 15 Tammuz 5781

From the Head of Jewish Life

Rabbi Daniel Siegel – Head of Jewish Life

The Torah of Karma

It might be surprising to learn that the very first communal prayer with which Jews begin their day are the words of a non-Jew who sought to curse Israel. This prayer is found in this week’s Parashah, Balak, which derives its name from the Moavite king who hired Bil’am to issue this curse. Seeking to destroy Israel, whom he fears, Balak says to Bil’am “For I know that whomever you bless will be blessed and whomever you curse will be cursed”.

In Indonesia several years ago, I had occasion to speak with a devotee of Hinduism who shared with me his understanding of Karma. Citing from the Upanishads “as one acts so will he be” and the Mahabarta “as one sows, so shall he reap”, he presented an idea central to Judaism – What we do toward another is what we make of ourselves.

Bil’am does not curse Israel, instead he blesses Israel concluding with the final words: “Those who bless you shall be blessed and those who curse you shall be cursed.” Bil’am does not deny his power to destroy another but understands that in doing so he destroys himself, as well. 

As Fiddler on the Roof puts it:

Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?
Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!

Significantly, Bil’am’s words regarding Israel, “Those who bless you shall be blessed and those who curse you shall be cursed” echo the words of God to Avra(ha)m: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”. Immediately preceding these words the Patriarch hears the divine exhortation: “Be a blessing”.

In being a blessing you will bring a blessing upon yourself and, thereby, a blessing upon others. This is expressed in the words immediately following the promise “I will bless those who bless you …”, as Avra(ha)m is told “through you all peoples shall be blessed”.

For Balak, life is a zero-sum game, for his people to be blessed Israel must be cursed. What we learn from the blessing of Bil’am is that the blessed like the cursed can never stand alone. We remind ourselves of this every morning when we intone the words of Bil’am to begin our morning prayer: Mah tovu ohaleikha Ya’akov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael. In seeing the goodness in others, we make for the blessing of self.

Instant Karma’s gonna get you…
Better recognize your brothers
Ev’ryone you meet
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
John Lennon