Contained in this Sidrah is a list of those who were to be counted out of the congregation of Israel. In the list of exclusion from the Israelite People – all of course attributed to God’s Word as communicated by Moses – we actually find our ancient ancestor’s expression of their particularism that is contradictory to the notion of a universal God that created all in the likeness of God, all equally loved in a way that human love cannot fathom.
I was intrigued, as my head is in Elul-mode, stumbling across the word vayahafokh that can mean being contradictory. In context vayahafokh suggests that God turned or overturned the curse of Balaam into a blessing upon the Israelites. Balaam is seen not as controlled by others but as a wicked person.
Vayahafokh Adonai Eloheykha l’kha et haklalah livrakhah ki ahayv’kha Adonai Eloheykha – The Eternal One, your God, turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Eternal, your God loves you (Deut 23:6).
Vayahafokh is used in the particular way of the redactors of the Torah, to indicate God’s support of the Israelites against another. The human rule abstracted from this is to exclude those who ordered the curse.
However, the action of vayahafokh is often ignored by the commentators in favour of a focus on the wicked Balaam, or the end that they deduced from the act. The act itself was to turn a curse into a blessing. When someone utters a curse how do we react? All too often it is to answer with a curse or to cut ourselves off from communicating with the origin of the curse. At times that is a sensible course of action but perhaps not for generations to come and certainly not ad olam, forever. The act of God here was to turn the curse into a blessing.
In this month of Elul, our focus is on turning. We usually use the word teshuvah in the sense of returning: but perhaps it might also be interesting for us to use the root hey-fay-khaf. In Ivrit, it can mean ‘fickle’ as in changeable. However it is most usually used in terms of contrariness, thinking in the opposite way: to invert or reverse. I find this an interesting concept for anyone and if I am to be particular, for a liberal Jew.
One of the basics of learning any language is opposites. Up and down, hot and cold, crying and laughing, good and bad, curse and blessing. Ha’eyfekh – the opposite.
If others are trapped in a certain way of thinking, let us when appropriate be the voice of contrariness, by which I mean, thinking differently. Can we turn a curse put upon us by others into a blessing of reconciliation? The act of God here was to turn the curse into a blessing.
Last summer on Sabbatical in Israel, I was gifted the opportunity to see many examples of people acting differently, the opposite or contrary to how we imagine ‘all Israelis’ to act.
There was the South African Jew who had made his home in the dunes of the northern reaches of the Negev who found himself living amongst the burgeoning numbers of Bedouin in the region. His early, negative encounters led him to understand that he could not communicate with them according to the norms of his culture. He sought to understand – different to approving of – their culture and therefore to create the foundation of positive relationships. By acting contrary to his impulse, he is now finding opportunity to communicate his way of thinking and bringing benefit to the environment he now shares with a number of Bedouin families.
Safiya, our friend from the Arab village of Nahaf, in the Upper Galil, is a determined young woman who will help others think differently. Beginning her studies at Haifa University, this young woman with a perpetual smile on her face found herself engaging with her Jewish peers who did not know how to communicate with her. Whatever the reason, she has established a space where she and other Arabs can support Jews in opening conversation and interacting with Arab students.
Then there were the Jews in food stores at the end of Friday giving the leftovers to other Jews, volunteers for Leket Israel, who rescued what would otherwise be waste food and delivering it to a Church of Africans and Asians who served over 400 meals to refugees in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv who, contrary to media reports, were delightful, orderly and grateful.
The act of God was to turn a curse into a blessing. Each of the examples I have listed are of people who have found themselves in certain situations and are seeking to turn curses into blessings. Vayahafokh, and God turned a curse into a blessing.
Perhaps our challenge is to interpret that, not as our ancient ancestors did and countless generations of humanity have done, to just thank God for the particular and turn our backs on the universal of humanity. Perhaps ours is to try to act a little more like God and a little less towards our primal impulse; civilised, western, progressive, liberal. Perhaps to be so is to be a little more contrary, to consider the opposite and to act upon that.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Ordained Leo Baeck College 2002
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.