In 1935, German composer Carl Orff set 24 Medieval Latin poems to music, in a collection known as Carmina Burana. The first and most famous song, O Fortuna, has been used in several movies including John Boorman’s Excalibur. It describes fate both like a moon and a wheel, ever waxing and waning, and having ups and downs. Change is constant. Sometimes you’re high and sometimes low. In the end, life is like a landscape painting where the best moments are captured by the mountain peaks and the lowest points disappear in the valleys.
Judaism has a different perspective. Rather than considering highs and lows, it sees blessings and curses. The contrast can best be seen in a biblical story of the Israelites in the desert.
In Numbers 22, the kings of Moab and Midian call upon a famous non-Jewish prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites, as the kings were nervous that the Jewish people would take over their land. Balak, the king of Midian, said to Balaam “Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Numbers 22:6) When Balaam prepared to do so, God asked Balaam the nature of the request, and he said that Balak had said “Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view. Come now and curse them for me; perhaps I can engage them in battle and drive them off.” (22:11)
Rashi, the medieval commentator, looked at the difference in how Balaam referred to Balak’s request and said that Balaam actually wanted to drive the Jews from the world, not just the land of Moab, since he hated them more than Balak. While Rashi focused on the word “וְגֵרַשְׁתִּֽיו” to arrive at his opinion, one can also consider the highlighted text above “hides the earth from view,” (וַיְכַ֖ס אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֑רֶץ). The hidden parts are the valleys where people cannot be seen. It is typically when a person or people are most vulnerable – the lowest part of the wheel, to use the metaphor in O Fortuna. That a lowly people could be so powerful to defeat the Amorites and Og, the king of Habashan (Numbers 21) perplexed the prophet. It unnerved his worldview, so he hated them.
God forbade Balaam from carrying out the task, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” (22:12) But eventually Balaam does go to to see the Jewish nation per Balak’s request, and arrives at a place where “he could see a portion of the people,” (22:41) as he was in the heights and Jews were spread out in the valleys.
Balaam told Balak that he could not curse those who God would not curse. These people have an inner strength beyond the ups and downs of life, “As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations.” (23:9)
Balak was angry with Balaam’s non-curses and considered that a better position and angle might elicit a more satisfying curse. Balak brought him to a few other mountaintops where he could see the entirety of the Jewish nation (23:13-14, 23:28) but it made no difference. God had blessed these people, even as they sat motionless in the valleys “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (24:5). Balaam had internalized that blessings and curses could happen at any station. He had broken the wheel.
Judaism has a different view of life beyond the motions of up and down; it considers states of blessings and curses. As a characteristic, they can exist in different situations and can even coexist at the same time. It is a dynamic which has incensed anti-Semites for millennia but also brought joy to those who bless the Jewish people in good times and bad.
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