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Chukat – Balak

Numbers 19:1 – 25:9

As Parashat Balak opens, the Israelites are encamped at the border of Moab. Fearing that the “horde” will overcome his kingdom, as they have many others, King Balak looks for a trump card to shift the odds in his favor. Enter Balaam, a renowned professional curser. Everyone knows, Balak says to Balaam, that “he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). The power of Balaam’s curse may or may not literally “work,” but that’s not the point. Balaam’s cursing of the Israelites will serve to boost the morale of Balak’s troops and give them the confidence to fight, thus giving his armies enough of an edge to win the upcoming battle.

This is the power of a curse—or of a blessing, for that matter: it works only on those who believe in it. Words are words, just empty shells that point to things, ideas, and concepts. They have power over us only if we believe them, if we assign them truth. A blessing, a word of praise, or a compliment on the one hand; a curse, an insult, or a putdown on the other, can trigger a reaction only if it echoes the voice of the most powerful Balaam of all: our own always-critiquing self-talk. This inner Balaam is the voice reviewing our every move, telling us of the (few) ways we are good and precious beings and the (many) ways we are not lovable, not worthy, and not [fill in the blanks: tall, thin, smart, beautiful, rich, talented…] enough. When our belief in our own self-worth gets confirmed by an outside source, our ego feels validated and secure. But when our own self-curses are mirrored back at us by the world “out there,” our sense of worthlessness gets reinforced and we become wounded, resentful, and angry.

So the question we might want to ask is: is there a way to get rid of our inner Balaam? Or, as some would like to believe, train our Balaam to only bless? Unfortunately, the only way we could do that would be to control our every thought—which we simply can’t do. We wish we could think only positive thoughts, pronounce only blessings, but that’s not possible because by the time we’ve become aware of our thoughts, we’ve already thought them. There is no way for us to know, before we think a thought, what kind of thought it will be. Whether we like it or not, the mind has a mind of its own.

But though we can’t eliminate Balaam’s voice altogether, we can minimize its power over us. Meditation practice helps us look at the different sub-personalities within our psyche that each thought represents, and in so doing we can dis-identify from them. We find that inside of us are different characters: the judge, the controller, the list maker, the planner, the commentator—to name but a few—and, of course, the professional critic: our inner Balaam. In meditation we practice simply noticing the voice of Balaam when it arises. We learn to name it and recognize its nature, its role. Most importantly, we learn to remember that since we can look at it as an object, it is not who we are. We don’t have to believe a single word it says or follow its dictates. Awareness helps us break the spell of our automatic conditioned behavior.

This kind of practice helps us to realize more and more consistently that neither our happiness nor our misery is contingent on anyone or anything outside of us. We can reclaim our inner power by disabling the dominant charge that our thoughts have over us, and that will enable us to live with more inner peace and equanimity. This is what our teachers call real happiness, Happiness with a capital H: Happiness beyond thought.