Parshat Balak: I am blessed

A look at the numerical value of two key words.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Judaism Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Blessed Blessing

It was a happy time for the Jews; they were on their way to Israel. But the nations in the vicinity were most unhappy. One of those nations, Moab, hired Balaam the soothsayer to curse the Jews.  

Balaam attempted to curse the Jews, but every time he attempted to curse, the finest blessings poured forth. G-d removed Balaam’s free choice and literally put words in his mouth. Balak was incensed. “I summoned you to curse my enemies, and behold you blessed them with blessing.”

Some have wondered why the Torah doubled up on the word blessing. One can easily excuse it as an ex‎pression of exasperation, yet in the Torah every word is precise.

The Year

The lunar Jewish calendar year has three-hundred-and-fifty-four days, elven days less than the solar calendar year.

During the year, there are festive days and ordinary days. On ordinary days, we confess our sins privately to G-d in our morning prayers. Festive days are marked by the omission of confession from our prayers. We confess and beg G-d’s forgiveness because we are taught that G-d in judgement during the ordinary days. On festive days, however, G-d does not sit in judgement, and hence there is no need to bring up our sins.
Festive days include Shabbat, Jewish holidays, Rosh Chodesh (first days of the month) and other days of joy. In total, there are one-hundred-and-thirty-two festive days in a Jewish calendar year. 

The breakdown is as follows:  There are fifty Shabbats in a year. There are fifty-two days related to the festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. Six days of Chanukah. Two days of Purim. Eighteen days of Rosh Chodesh. The Rosh Hashanah for trees, Pesach Sheni, Lag B’omer, and the fifteenth of Av.

After omitting one-hundred-and-thirty-two days from the calendar year, we are left with two-hundred-and-twenty-two ordinary days during which we confess our sins before G-d in our morning prayers.

Blessing and Curse

Let’s return to Balak’s words. “I summoned you to curse my enemies, and behold you blessed them with blessing.” The Hebrew word in this verse for “to curse” is lakov and the word for blessing is barech.

Hebrew letters also serve as numbers, which enable us to derive a numeric value from any combination of letters. The numeric value of lakov–to curse, is one-hundred-and-thirty-two. The numeric value of barech–blessing, is two-hundred-and-twenty-two. If you haven’t made the connection yet, let me make it for you. The word lakov–to curse, corresponds to the festive days of the year. And the word barech–blessing, corresponds to the ordinary days of the year.

With this information, we can gain insight into Balak’s words and understand why he doubled up on the word blessing. He summoned Balaam to curse the Jews during the festive days of their year. During days of judgement, Balak didn’t worry much about the Jews. He knew that Jews commit sins and He expected that G-d would judge them. But Jews have one-hundred-and-thirty-two days, when they get a complete pass. He wanted to curse the Jews during those days and bring them down.

Yet, he failed. G-d would not allow the Jews to be cursed. Moreover, G-d turned Balaam’s curses into blessings. Which means that not only were the festive days not cursed, the ordinary days were blessed. “I summoned you to curse my enemies’ [festive days], and behold you [not only] blessed them [in their festive days, you gifted them] with [an additional] blessing [in their ordinary days].”

They are Blessed

When Balaam was first invited to curse the Jews, G-d told him, “Do not curse the nation for they are blessed.” 

These last words, “for they are blessed” comes to life under our treatment. Balaam understood that Balak wanted him to curse the Jews during their special festive days, when G-d overlooks their sins. G-d’s response was, don’t bother. You can’t curse the Jews during these days because even during these days, they are blessed.

We don’t need an explanation for why festive days are blessed. We are happy during these days; we are in a loving relationship with G-d, He doesn’t judge us and He forgives our inequities. But why are the days of judgement a blessing?

Days of judgement are a blessing because they help us make progress. We don’t discover our true potential and learn our purpose in life from the happy days. We discover it from the challenging days. We can move along without a care during the festive days, but progress only comes from digging deep to overcome challenge. The festive days are filled with movement, the judgement days are filled with progress and we must never confuse movement with progress.

A healthy year needs both kinds of days and a healthy life needs both kinds of modes. There are days designed to bear down and push ourselves forward to ensure that we make progress. Then there are days that are made to relax and enjoy the fruit of our labor. These two modes must never be at cross purposes. One should never be blessed and the other cursed. They must work together in concert to achieve their joint goal. The former generates progress, the latter generates movement along the lines of our progress. Both are necessary for our wellbeing, both are good, and both are blessed.

It can truly be said that if both our modes are blessed, then so are we.