Skip To Content

What The Torah Teaches Us About The Power Of The Powerless

Since President Trump was elected, I’ve taken to the streets of Washington, D.C. more times than I can count to protest the administration’s policies and the people stripping women, immigrants and marginalized communities of the rights that progressives spent decades fighting for.

Each protest has been marked by a different call to action — but, for me, they’re all driven by my Jewish values and inspired by my fellow Jewish activists. This past Saturday, before joining the 30,000-plus people that turned out for the #KeepFamiliesTogether rally in D.C., I stood alongside allies in the Jewish community, just across the street from the White House, for a special Shabbat gathering. Together, we sang, prayed and discussed how last week’s Torah portion reflected our own struggle to ensure justice for families separated at the border while seeking asylum.

The parsha, Balak, is an unusual passage — or, more accurately, a passage in which something very unusual happens.

Balak, who has seen the Israelites approaching Canaan, is worried about what they will do to his land. So, he hires a non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to curse the Israelites. Balaam goes back and forth about whether to take the job. God even tells him not to do it, but he’s ultimately swayed by the promise of payment. He sets out the next day on a donkey. God is not happy, and sends an angel to block his path. The donkey notices the angel and refuses to continue, and Balaam responds by beating the animal and leveling threats.

That’s when something unusual happens. Balaam’s donkey opens her mouth and challenges him. She says, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times!” Her speech opens Balaam’s eyes, and he then sees the angel.

Describing this parsha, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, a senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, notes that “’[a female] beast of burden, subjected to physical abuse, the donkey… is the ultimate image of powerlessness in the social hierarchy.’ For the donkey to have a voice transforms power dynamics.”

Power. It all comes down to power. For a brief moment in the Torah, the least among us finds her power, her voice. Reflecting on this, I can’t help but think of the audio of children who were just separated from their parents at the border.

These kids have so little power. But they have a voice. And that is powerful. Powerful enough for people in government to open their eyes and see the angel. At least, that is my hope.

When Balaam reaches the Israelites, he finds that God changes the curses on his tongue into blessings. Three times he tries to curse them, and three times he blesses them instead. The third blessing was this:

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” Mah Tovu became the name for the beautiful prayer that begins morning worship. A prayer that grew from a blessing, which grew from a curse.

We are living at a defining moment in U.S. history. In American Jewish history. Our nation’s values and its people are being tested.

The administration is trying to curse immigrant families. President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller call immigrants rapists and gang members. They separate children from their parents at the border. They seek to hold children in detention without limits. They block refugee resettlement, particularly that of Muslim refugees, during the worst refugee crisis in history.

But this parsha shows us how a curse can become a blessing. We’re going to force the administration’s curses to become blessings. We do so by joining in solidarity now and rallying together. We do so by elevating immigrant and refugee voices, and listening to their words. We do so by urging Congress to take action and holding all our elected officials accountable.

I believe and hope that one day we will look back at this particular moment in history and see a turning point — a time when we came together to turn a curse into a blessing into a prayer. That one day we will be able to say, with full hearts, “How goodly are your tents, your dwelling places, O America!”

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.