June 2021 – Parshat Balak

Dear Friends,

This week we marked Refugee Week in Australia, which is held each year in the week following the 20th June which marks World Refugee Day, a date celebrated on the UN calendar. This important week is dedicated to honouring refugees from around the world and recognises their courage in being forced to flee from their prior homes and seek safety elsewhere.

So, as we mark this important date, I think people should do two things: one, appreciate our safety and security in Australia that we are so blessed to have; and two, reach out to a refugee support organization in Australia and offer your support or time if you are able to do so.

At present, there are millions of refugees around the world and there are many people who need support. As Jewish people, who over millennia were forced to escape conflict and persecution we can certainly relate to the plight of refugees, and we should do whatever we can within our power to help those less fortunate.

In this week’s Parsha, Balak the King of Moav, hires Bilam, a non-Jewish sorcerer to curse the Jewish people. The resulting melee, in which Bilam continually blesses the people instead of cursing them is the by-product of a series of mishaps in which G-d sends an angel with a sword to threaten Bilam. Unable to see it, despite his donkey reversing course to avoid the angel with the sword, Bilam is humiliated when each time he proceeds to try and curse the people of Israel a blessing comes out instead.

The blessings that Bilam gives the people of Israel include the Ma Tovu, the famous verse that says: “How good are your tents Jacob, your dwellings O Israel!” The famous commentator Rashi says that this was referring to the formation of tents that the Jewish people used in the desert, whereby each entrance was staggered so that no one else peered into their neighbour’s tent.

While this famous verse is widely recited and included in all prayer books around the world, it is a cause of fascination that it retains its popularity despite its roots being in the words of an evil sorcerer trying to curse the Jewish people instead blesses them! To understand why a blessing that was supposed to be a curse retains its popularity in Jewish liturgy, one can reflect on Jewish history.

Jews have consistently faced destruction, oppression and persecution and were forced to become refugees in search of safety. However, despite the hardships and sadness, the Jewish people, time and time again, have prevailed. The verse is, therefore, somewhat ironic. It is representative of the fact that the Jewish people, despite their curses and sadness have turned their situations into blessings. The verse of “Ma Tovu” certainly symbolise this: we were in line for a curse, but our curse turned into a blessing.

So, as we end this important week, one in which we acknowledge the suffering of so many refugees around the world, we wish that for all people they experience a “Ma Tovu” moment: one in which their curses turn into blessings, and they have the opportunity to experience rebirth and regeneration.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Gabi