When God gives us the power of speech


Rabbi Alana Suskin | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Balak, Numbers 22:2 – 25:9.

The opening verses of Leonard Cohen’s song “If It Be Your Will” begin:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before


I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

The words are evocative of a theme in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, in which speech plays a central role. Balak, king of Moav, fears the mass of Israelites moving toward his territory: “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

He asks the prophet Bilam to curse the Israelites to prevent this. God tells Bilam not to go. After some back and forth, God tells Bilam: Fine, go if you must, but do as I tell you.

But God is angry with Bilam. As the prophet rides his ass to deliver his curse, God sends an angel to stand in the way. The ass sees it, but the famous seer does not. Bilam beats and harangues the ass, at which point, “God opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?’”

Bilam and the ass have a dialogue that ends with the angel being revealed to Bilam and telling him that the ass had saved his life. The angel then sends Bilam on his way, reminding him to speak only the words God puts in his mouth.

Aside from being a remarkable bit of humor on God’s part, there is a clear message about the power of speech. The Baal Shem Tov, in Amud haTefilah (89, 91), says that a person is a vessel like a shofar, when one blows into it a sound comes out, and if the person stops putting their breath (spirit) into it, then no sound comes out.

Similarly if God removed God’s power from the person, the Baal Shem Tov continued, it would be impossible for them to speak. And when a person speaks with love and awe… the thought and the sound come together in joy and this becomes speech.

Human speech isn’t — or shouldn’t be — empty noise, but like God’s speech, an act of creation. When God created the world, it was done through speech. When a human speaks, we, too, can create worlds: When a couple marries, the words they speak bind them together for the rest of their lives. When a person makes a blessing over candles on the evening of Shabbat, Shabbat begins — even if it’s early. Their words have created the reality of Shabbat.

We can convince people to act, or refrain from acting — we all are aware of the power of demagogues to do dreadful harm, but also how merely talking with a friend or a therapist can heal.

Human words are powerful, and God giving us the power of speech elevated humanity to just a little below the divine, giving us the power of blessing and creating.

God shows Bilam that by agreeing to curse Israel — and for money — he has devalued his humanity. By giving the ass the power of speech, God reminds Bilam that there isn’t anything special about him: even a donkey can speak if God gives it the ability. It is only when we use our speech to sanctify and elevate — to speak the words God would put in our mouths —that is when we are like the Creator. There is only “free speech” when we use the speech for sanctified purposes.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is managing editor of Jewschool.com.

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