This past Shabbat, on June 29th, Rabbi Ben Spratt delivered a beautiful sermon that felt deeply relevant to our current world, it is shared below.
At the Brink of Everything
“How dare they laugh?”
A woman screamed on Columbus as she and a fellow diner observed a group of teens giggling as they huddled around a YouTube comedy sketch playing on a phone. The sound of her shout caused me and other pedestrians to pause, ears tuned to grasp clarity and context. She continued, “There are babies locked up and you stand there laughing? You disgust me.” Whether out of defiance or pure immersion in the device before them, the youth didn’t respond. But the women’s words rippled among the growing throng bearing witness to this social critique. Glancing among us, the hypocrisy of the criticism was known by some. I bore a cup of Lenny’s coffee, another held a shopping bag from a nearby boutique, and the owner of the voice of rage had a half-eaten burger still in hand and an iced tea before her. Somehow, even with babies in jail, we were supping and sipping and shopping. And perhaps we lingered for a reason deeper than curiosity over inter-generational conflict. Perhaps we too wondered if such signs of life, such luxuries of living, were offensive indications of denial and callousness. We, bearers of blessing when so many suffer in curse.
Our Torah portion this week is one of high drama melded with low comedy. Balak, King of Moab, watches as the Israelite vanquish army after army amidst their wilderness wandering. He knows it is only a matter of time before they come and defeat the Moabite nation. But he hears of a sorcerer supreme, a prophet powerful enough his curses could lay waste legions. He hires Bilam, this expert excoriater, to destroy the Israelites. After a long journey, involving invisible forces and a talking ass, Bilam stands on the rim of a cliff overlooking the Israelite camp. There, on the edge of everything, he opens his mouth in curse, verbal venom ready to spew forth. We can imagine him, this hater-for-hire seeing this scourge, a nation encamped where they do not belong, leaders instigating war and conflict. And instead emerge the words Mah Tovu Ohalekhah Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. Instead of curse, he offers pure blessing. Affirming wonder and awe, rather than destruction and horror.
In our Torah text, God is the agent of this change, placing the words in Bilam’s mouth. The medieval commentator Abravanel asks, “Why would God actively change Bilam’s words? Why not simply ensure his curse had no effect?” Centuries later, Ibn Kaspi would answer, “Bilam’s words had no inherent power. It was the effect of the words that had power.” The destructive potency of curse is in the reception. We hear words of vitriol and it colonizes in our ears. We begin to hear only hatred, see only scorn. God changes the words for the sake of the Israelites, knowing that if they heard curse it would only ignite more curse; but if they could hear blessing, perhaps it might inspire more blessing.
The truth of this teaching is all around us. When the average person hears a negative comment or statement from another person, we are 10 times more likely to respond with a negative comment ourselves. When we hear a negative statement about a person, place, or thing, it typically takes hearing anywhere from 7-15 positive reports to even be open to the possibility that said person, place, or thing has potential. We are 5 times more likely to read news of negativity, and 8 times more likely to pay for such news. Like a virulent virus, hate breeds hate, fear fosters fear, and the power of words, written or spoken, linger far beyond the moment. They ripple outwards and incubate in the minds and hearts of others. And then they spread.
Our sages in the Talmud wanted to know how exactly God changes Bilam’s curse into blessing. In one imagination, God used divine hooks to actually manipulate the lips, tongue, and pallet of Bilam to utter the desired sounds. But another rabbinic reading believes that God placed an angel in Bilam’s mouth. This oral angel of sorts helped him to dig under the horror and hate and find beneath it a blessing worthy of utterance.
Every morning our liturgy invites us to begin our day with Baruch sheamar v’haya olam, baruch hu – blessed is the one who speaks and the world came into being. Blessed is God. The Chassidic tradition has a playful rereading of this Hebrew – Baruch sheamar v’ahaya olam? Baruch hu! A blessing that is spoken and creates a new world? That is a true blessing!
Ours is a tradition that believes God both creates and destroys through words, through the potency of both blessing and curse. It is why our liturgists chose to put Bilam’s words as the opening intention of every morning prayer service. With our words we may create or destroy, as we stand on the brink of everything, we will always stand before both beauty and horror. It is our choice what world we wish to ripple forward. Out of the enemy of Israel, one who sought the destruction of every child and every adult, came pure blessing. And his words greet us as the opening intention of our morning prayers and how we begin every Shabbat morning service here.
The writer Courtney Martin shared these words by in 2015:
My daughter is on the brink of everything…She’s just started talking. She looked up at the moon on Sunday and pointed. I said “moon,” not expecting anything, and then she said “moon” like it was the most natural thing in the world. She’s just starting to use a spoon, all on her own. Last night she scooped haphazard little bits of cottage cheese into her mouth and then clapped for herself between each and every bite.
I’m learning so much from watching her…I’m also learning about awe. The other day I brought her over to this obscenely beautiful jasmine vine that has grown bushy and fragrant near our mailboxes. I picked her up and we put our noses right up to the petite white flowers and took in the scent. Then I set her down and she walked over to a jade plant that some neighbors and I recently migrated to a bigger pot, leaned over, and took a big, satisfied whiff. Jade plants, of course, are many things, but they are not fragrant. And yet, if you’d seen her there — neck craned, eyes closed — you would have assumed that she was smelling the most potent thing in the world.
Maybe she doesn’t really get what smell is yet. But after I let out a surprised giggle, I realized that there was something so moving about a little human smelling a jade plant. She has no reason not to expect it to smell wonderful. She has no reason not to expect everything to be wonderful… somehow she can see there is always what to appreciate.
Last year, five words went viral around the globe. They now adorn thousands of houses of worship, exist in dozens of languages, on campuses, in homes, even public signage. We have displayed them outside Rodeph Sholom since then. “Hate has no home here.” What few know is the true origin story of that phrase. In the fall of 2016 in North Park Chicago, residents of a neighborhood there gathered to think of some words they could put up amidst the last presidential election that would encourage everyone, regardless of political leanings, to leave behind vitriol and curse. Those 5 words were the suggestion not of a sage nor politician, but those of a 3rd grader. As fellow residents recall the debates and the emotion, the despondency and the divisiveness, the voice of this child somehow spoke truth into being. Hate has no home here. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, how justified your sense of truth, how moral your sense of being. As God’s role with Bilam was to help him speak blessing in the face of curse, the words of that 3rd grader are truly Ruach Elohim, the essential divine spirit. Somehow channeling words of blessing that eluded the rest of us adults.
To the woman screaming against all of us finding enjoyment when so many suffer, I hear you. At times I, we, feel so helpless in the face of the injustices of this world we believe our own suffering is the only thing we have to give. We gaze at the children laughing over a video or attempting to smell a jade plant, and long to return to innocence and naiveté, for such enjoyments cannot (or perhaps should not) be savored similarly for the seeing and enlightened. We see all the work that must be done. All the horrors that must be righted. All the lies that must be countered, the compassion that must be mustered, the wrath that must be wreaked.
But Bilam offers us a reminder. We are tasked by our prophets to stand on the brink of everything. Like the divine gaze, we are to perceive a land of both destruction and delight, but ultimately, use any mechanism we can to speak blessing into being. Be it hooks in our lips or angels in our mouth, can we find a way to counter curse with blessing? This is our litmus test – should we, with eyes open to a world that falls apart, come to the brink and see only curse, feel compelled only to rage and ridicule, we have faiths to be the prophets with angels in our mouths. If we can muster only venom, we have become agents of a cause of curse that ultimately leads us and the world further towards oblivion, no matter the loftiness of our intentions.
Instead, can we step out on the brink of this land, allow our hearts to break, feel the curses rise like bile in our throats, and dig deeper, plumb the depths until we can find the blessing, the delight. And then speak it into being.
As we near the day when we recall the birth of this nation, and the courageous dream of those before us who stood on the brink of everything, I want to bring in a blessing embedded in the foundation of our country. A blessing that is still aspirational. A blessing that bears repeating often, by all:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.