Is it okay to curse our rivals?
Recently, I was contacted by someone who was cheering for their kid on the sidelines of a soccer game. Seeing that their child’s team was not doing well, this person sent me a text: “Rabbi, is there a prayer that I can say to ensure that the other team doesn’t score?”
I was surprised that the person asked for a prayer for the poor kicking skills of the other team, instead of a prayer to help their own child. But what I heard behind this parent’s text was something deeper. Perhaps dreading the disappointment of their child losing the game by a landslide, the parent was looking for a last-ditch effort to save the child from embarrassment, sadness, and frustration. What I heard the parent saying was: “My child’s team is getting crushed! How am I going to get my child through this when she’s off the field?”
Is it okay to pray for the downfall of our opponents?
In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, we read about two opponents: the Moabites and the Israelites. The Moabites, seeing how numerous the Israelites are, feel threatened by them. Therefore, the king of Moab, Balak, sends messengers to ask for help. He wants Balaam to curse the Israelites.
What ensues are numerous failed attempts at achieving this goal. At one point, Balaam’s donkey, en route to fulfill his mission, swerved off the road. Another time the donkey ran into a wall. It is clear that God is rooting for the Israelites by miraculously preventing this mission from being achieved. And yet, each time the donkey does not obey its master, Balaam beats IT with a stick.
The donkey even calls Balaam out on it, claiming that he has been faithful to his servant for so long. Why would Balaam beat his own donkey, the animal with whom he was so close?
Balak and Balaam have something in common: they promote hostility at the expense of those within their own circles.
Balak feels threatened by the Israelites, but he channels his fear to focus his energy on his enemies instead of on those closest to him. According to the Beit Ramah, Balak shows how he would rather curse his enemies than bless his own people. In commanding Balaam to curse the Israelite people, Balak demonstrates his distorted priorities.
In turn, Balaam follows Balak’s poor example. When his faithful donkey neglects to fulfill the hostile requests, Balaam beats his own donkey with a stick.
Is it okay to pray for the failure of our opponents?
In our own lives, when someone sets us off, when something goes awry, it is tempting to curse the other side, the other team. When someone disagrees with us politically or religiously, we feel threatened by their beliefs and spend our time, energy and resources convincing them otherwise, instead of staying in our own lane. It is all too easy to allow our thoughts and our concerns to be focused on the suffering “the other” has caused to us. We seek revenge, perhaps, or minimally, some form of justice.
But often, as a result, do we neglect those closest with us, including ourselves? So focused on retaliation, we neglect to bless our own people. We forego even considering the part we might have played in causing an unfortunate outcome. So worried about defending our position, we lose our own ethical footing. We spread rumors, we engage in gossip, we might even set them up.
Is it okay to curse our rivals?
If our enemies are legitimately causing harm, injury, pain, and suffering, then that is an entirely different scenario. But the Israelites — and perhaps our sports team opponents — are hardly that.
So what kind of prayer did I share with the soccer parent?
I did not share a prayer for the demise of the other team that day. Instead, I texted a prayer about the wonderment of the body, with the hope that the quick feet of this parent’s child would achieve their greatness on the soccer field. I also sent a parent’s prayer for wisdom, patience, and strength. After all, I believe it was the parent who needed a blessing in the aftermath of the team’s brutal defeat.
One of the lessons we have learned in this pandemic is the importance of being with family, of focusing on and prioritizing those most dear to us. As we inch our way out of this unprecedented time, I pray this is one lesson that will stick.
In the midst our defensiveness, let us turn inward.
In the face of adversity, let us focus on the goodness of our people.
When we are tempted to curse the other, let us instead choose to bless and give fortitude to our very own. It all starts with us.