An Abundance of Blessings: Mindfulness and Parshat Balak
In this week's Torah portion, Balak, Balaam is approached by King Balak of Moab to curse Bnei Yisrael, the people of Israel. Balaam was a pagan prophet whose fame reached far and wide.
Balak feels threatened by Bnei Yisrael– this strange and vast people who were enslaved in Egypt and who “cover the face of the earth” .
“I know that whoever you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed,” Balak tells Balaam.
Balak promises riches to Balaam in exchange for cursing Bnei Yisrael..
Balaam explains that he can only say words that G-d approves of ("I cannot go beyond the word of G-d”).
Three times Balaam goes to curse the people and three times instead of cursing them, he blesses them.
The third time he says: “מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
Did Balaam really believe what he said, or were these words put in his mouth by G-d that he merely articulated?
Well known Jewish commentator Rashi says that Balaam did see good in Bnei Yisrael. He took a deep look and noticed something small– that there were spaces between the tents, affording the people privacy and allowing them to conduct their lives modestly.
Whether or not Balaam understood the blessings that G-d placed in his mouth,
what we can learn from this story is the idea of taking a deeper look at all the things around us. Where can we rediscover the good in our homes, neighborhoods and society? What assumptions deserve a fresh look and deeper reflection?
Another lesson from this week’s Torah portion is to cultivate our belief in the power of blessings and love. Balaam set out to give curses, but in the end delivered blessings.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments that G-d is teaching us that love can turn curses into blessings. “It is the only force capable of defeating hate. Love heals the wounds of the world.”
We are often compelled in today's world to be consumed by our fears and to think in terms of “us versus them”.
How can we develop our capacity to appreciate what we have around us? How can we turn our inclination to curse into a tendency to bless?
Mindfulness can help us to perceive things as they really are, and notice and appreciate things that we might take for granted. As a result, we might be inclined to recite blessings, such as “How goodly are your tents..”
Loving kindness meditation is a practice which involves repeating a set of phrases sending out blessings for you, people you care for and all beings, such as be happy, be peaceful, and be healthy.
Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness, explains:
…”the practice of loving-kindness is about cultivating love as a strength, a muscle, a tool that challenges our tendency to see people–including ourselves–as disconnected and isolated from one another. Loving-kindness is about opening ourselves up to others with compassion. “
We will now do a loving kindness meditation together.
Take a moment to settle in . Getting comfortable in your chair or wherever you’re sitting.
Checking your posture . Sitting straight, shoulders relaxed.
Taking a moment to notice your breath. (pause)
Observing the rhythm of your breath.
Allowing your breath to flow naturally, and reciting inwardly the following phrases directed to your own well-being. Beginning with yourself. You begin with yourself because without loving yourself it is difficult to love others.
You can create your own phrases that you connect to and best open your heart. Repeat these phrases over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind.
So sending yourself these blessings:
May I be safe and free from harm
May I be healthy in mind and body
May I be free from suffering and live with ease
May I be happy.
May I treat myself kindly and compassionately
As you repeat these phrases, picture yourself as you are now, with compassion and loving kindness.
This meditation may at times feel awkward to you. It can also bring up mixed feelings or difficult feelings. If this happens, be extra patient and kind towards yourself,
And now bringing into your mind someone that you care about very much — a parent, a partner, a child, a sibling, a friend, a teacher — someone you love from the present or past . Someone who cares for you. Thinking of them makes you smile. You might have more than one. Pick one for now. If a person doesn’t come to mind, maybe someone who you know to be inspirational or you admire; someone it is easy to imagine sending good intentions or blessings to. Imagine this person that you are thinking of sitting next to you. Imagine that they can feel your presence, and feel you wishing them well as you send them these blessings:
May you be safe and free from harm May you be healthy in body and mind May you be free from suffering and live with ease May you be happy May you treat yourself kindly and compassionately
Taking a few minutes now to feel how it is to wish these things for this person, letting yourself have a sense of these blessings emanating from you to them, connecting you to them…
Let the image and feelings you have for this person arise and wash over you. Some people find lovingkindness for themselves difficult, so they begin their practice with someone they care about. That’s fine. Follow the way that most easily opens your heart.
And now think of someone that you would recognize if you saw them, but you don’t know them that well— a familiar stranger, such as the cashier at your grocery store or the person who cuts your hair. You probably don’t think about this person very much, but maybe you appreciate them and would like to send them good wishes. Imagine sending this person these blessings while they receive them :
May you be safe and free from harm
May you be healthy in body and mind.
May you be free from suffering and live with ease
May you be happy
May you treat yourself kindly and compassionately
Let any and all feelings arise within you (pause)
And now think about people you know such as neighbors, co-workers, extended family, and picture yourself standing with these people. You can bring in as many people as you want. When you have the image in you mind, wish all of you these blessings (pause):
May we be safe and free from harm
May we be healthy in body and mind.
May we be free from suffering and live with ease
May we be happy.
May we treat ourselves kindly and compassionately
Allow these blessings to flow from you to these people and also from them to you.
Take a moment to feel their presence . (pause)
And now returning to noticing your breath. Focusing on the area of the heart and lungs and imagining that area expanding and allowing all these blessings in. (pause)
May all of us everywhere feel safe and happy, live with ease, and treat ourselves kindly and compassionately. May we, in our beautiful and challenging world, lean into love, trust our “goodly” perspectives, listen to our hearts, and offer blessings to all with whom we meet.
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