This week’s Torah portion Chukat-Balak was written by Rabbi Emily E. Segal, the senior rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix and the national co-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. It was originally published in the Jewish News (Arizona).
The second portion of this week’s double parshah of Chukat/Balak is centered around the character of Bilaam, the seer - and prophet-for-hire whose words were believed to have a real impact in the world.
Those who he cursed would indeed be cursed; those who he blessed would indeed be blessed.
The Moabite king Balak hires Bilaam to join him and curse the Israelites, whose power and number intimidated him.
After an eventful journey that involves no less than an eloquent talking donkey, Balak brings Bilaam to a vantage point overlooking the Israelite encampment.
Bilaam opens his mouth intending to curse the Israelites, yet all he can make himself do is to bless the Israelites.
Balak asks Bilaam to try again, and again the words that flow from his mouth are those of praise, not curse.
A third time Bilaam opens his mouth and simply offers blessing — and these beautiful words of blessing find their way into our prayer-book — Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mish-k’notecha Yisrael — how beautiful are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel!
It calls us as well to consider the power of our words and how we go about choosing words that hurt or words that lift others up.
Midrash (Deut Rabbah 1:6) compares Bilaam and Moses, who are both referred to as prophets by Torah, commenting on the similar sound of D’varim — words — and D’vorim — bees, noting that in the book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere, Moses’s criticisms of the Israelites are like the stings of the bee.
The sting hurts the person stung, but it hurts the bee more, causing its death.
This teaching implies that Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy because criticizing Israel has taken so much out of him.
From this, we learn that we should judge how worthwhile criticism is not only by its factual accuracy but also by how much pain it causes, for the one critiqued and for the one who is criticizing.
Yet the midrash goes on to say that the harsh criticisms delivered by Moses are spoken in love, as opposed to the praises and blessings of Bilaam in this week’s Torah portion.
Better heartfelt criticism borne of love and concern than empty flattery, than flattery that is blind to the truth, or than flattery for the purpose of someone’s manipulative desire to achieve their own goals.
This leaves us with the question of how exactly to share constructive criticism when we truly need to do so.
Just five verses into the book of Deuteronomy, we read, “Ho’il Moshe Be-eir Et Ha-torah Ha-zot — Moses took to illuminate this teaching.”
Traditional commentators teach that this means Moses interpreted the Torah in the many languages of the world so that everyone could have access to the Torah, not only in the Sfat Emet (the holy tongue, Hebrew) but in the language they best understand.
For us, we learn that when we need to critique or criticize, we need to do so from a place of investment and care, as Moses did when speaking to the Israelites, and also to speak in a way that can truly be heard and understood.
We cannot guarantee that someone will take our advice or guidance to heart, but we can communicate in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to do so.
How wise is the Torah’s advice for our lives.
When we feel moved to share praise or critique with those among our families or friends, coworkers or those we supervise, or community members, we can evaluate the purpose of that speech.
We can ask ourselves: Is it truly about me, or is it focused on helping and lifting up the recipient of our speech? Is it necessary? Is it clear and kind? Will it be helpful?
Let us praise with open hearts. Let us critique only from a place of care.
If we do so, we are sure to create greater goodness and wholeness in our relationships, in our communities, and in the world.