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Parshas Balak (5777)

Curses, Curses, Curses ...

If you are of a certain age, you might yet remember “Carnac the Magnificent”, a recurring comedic role played by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. One of Carson's most well-known characters, Carnac was a "mystic from the East" who could psychically "divine" unknown answers to unseen questions.

If one of Carnac’s jokes (often a very bad pun) generated a negative response, Carnac would give a disapproving look, then cast a comedic "Middle Eastern curse" upon the audience. I remember two of his classic curses: “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!” and “May a diseased yak drop dead on your front lawn!”

So how does this connect to the weekly Torah portion, you ask? Well, as it turns out, Parshas Balak starts off with this wicked king named Balak trying to get this wicked “mystic” named Bilaam to cast a curse upon the Jewish people.

Only this curse was not humorous at all. In fact, had Bilaam been successful in his attempt to curse us, the Jewish people would have been destroyed, G-d forbid. Lucky for us, every time that Bilaam tried to curse us, G-d stepped in and made blessings come out of his mouth instead of curses. So that when Balak brought Bilaam to the mountaintop so that he could view the Jews encamped down below and cast a curse upon them (see Numbers 23:28), Bilaam was moved to bless the Jewish people instead and to say, “Mah Tovu Oholecha Yisrael … How goodly are your tents, O Jacob …”, a blessing referring specifically to our beautiful Batei Keneses (Houses of Prayer) and Batei Midrash (Houses of Study).

Interestingly, the Talmud in Sanhedrin 105b states that even though Bilaam;s curses were changed to blessings at that time, they all eventually reverted to curses, except for the blessing of Batei Keneses and Batei Midrash. Although Bilaam’s curses were many, all of the other curses - save the one for Houses of Prayer and Study - eventually came to pass. The Temple was destroyed, and Israel was left with neither kings nor kingdom. Houses of Prayer and Study, however, are with us always.

Along the theme of reverting curses, there is a fascinating mesorah (tradition) handed down from the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) that all the “curses” that mankind was cursed after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, will be reverted and changed back to normal at the “end of time”, except for the curse of the Serpent, who represents the evil force of Amalek, and whose curse shall remain in place until his utter and total destruction.

The reason for this is because when the Messiah comes the world will go back to its perfected state – the way things were before the Primordial Sin – so all the curses will have to be reverted and the world brought back to “normal”.

Amazingly, we see the Vilna Gaon’s “prediction” coming true in our own times, as many of the curses mentioned in the Bible have already disappeared.

Adam was cursed “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread…” (see Genesis 3:19), yet today most people no longer must labor and sweat tirelessly just to eat. Food is produced in abundance with machines that allow just a few people to operate massive farms with ease. And even people who don’t work at all need not starve, as food banks and charities abound, and governments provide welfare.

At the same time, Eve’s curses also seem to have been reverted. She was cursed to have pain during pregnancy, childbirth, and raising the children (see Genesis 3:16), yet the pains of pregnancy and childbearing have been significantly eased in our times thanks to modern medicine and inventions like the epidural anesthetic.

While in the past it was very common for women to die in labor, it is now very rare in modern hospitals. Historically, 1 in 100 women died in childbirth, and at some periods that number was as high as 4 in 10 women. Today, that number is 1 in nearly 50,000 in many Western countries!

As well, Eve was “cursed” that her husband should “rule over her” (see Genesis ibid), yet with the Women’s’ Rights movement this has changed in a big way.

Another ancient Biblical curse that seems to have reverted back to normal is Noah’s curse of his son Ham that his descendants (who lived in Africa) shall be slaves to the descendants of Shem and Japheth (who lived in Europe and Asia) - see Genesis 9:25 – as slavery in the modern area has been virtually abolished, and even racial discrimination has been greatly diminished thanks to the Civil Rights movement.

So we see that as we get closer and closer to the Messianic Era when the world will go back to a perfected state, curses are reverting all around us – just as the Vilna Gaon predicted.

Of course, our “good friend” the Serpent is still crawling around on his belly just as he was cursed to do (see Genesis 3:14), and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Pretty fascinating, eh?

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