Balak and Solitary: Dealing With Our Desire To Curse Those Who Harm Us

Every time I read parshat Balak, I think of the Book of Jonah. In both stories the protagonists are reluctant prophets, sent on extremely difficult missions that they don’t necessarily believe in. The eventual outcomes of both missions are completely out of their control. Especially relevant for my work with T’ruah is that both of these missions engage fundamental questions of justice. The people of Nineveh were criminal, and to King Balak the Israelites were a threat. The question, the lesson, is how to respond?

Parshat Balak and the Book of Jonah present a range of conflicting ideas about this. In both accounts, the human impulse, left unchecked, is to curse harshly and damn permanently criminals and those we fear or don’t understand. In both stories, God enters to show people another, better alternative. In this reorientation from one way of doing things to a better one lies the relevance, power, and teaching for our broken criminal justice system today.

Let’s begin with Jonah. Keen on just desserts and finding forgiveness distasteful, Jonah is furious when God forgives the people of Tarshish. As we read:

“And God saw that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil which He would do unto them; and He did it not. And this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” (3:10,4:1)

If left to Jonah, the people of Tarshish would have paid dearly for their mistakes. In God’s wiser hands, a different way prevails.

We see something similar in parshat Balak – particularly when read through Rashi’s lens. Here, when Balak sends Balaam forth to pronounce a curse against the Israelites, Balaam replies: “But how can I curse people that God has not?” (Numbers 22:8) To Rashi’s mind, Balaam feels that “even when the Israelites deserved to be cursed, they were not cursed. [Such was the case] when their father [Jacob] recalled [Simeon and Levi’s] sin saying, “in their wrath they killed a man” but God cursed only their wrath, as it says, “Cursed be their wrath”! (Gen. 49:6) [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 12, Num. Rabbah 20:19]

In both stories, God teaches people that their approaches to the situations at hand are completely misguided. Where Jonah and Balak seek to destroy, God seeks to rehabilitate. Where Jonah and Balak want to curse and damn, God wants to restore and reconcile. God’s way and deepest desire is always to rehabilitate, restore and reconcile.

As we read in Ezekiel: “As surely as I live, declares Adonai, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

An authentically Jewish approach to justice would pursue the same ends. It would encourage methods and systems that address offenders’ wrongdoing while moving them towards rehabilitation. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught in the early 19th century:

“For each transgression and sin there is an appropriate punishment, for the sole purpose of cleansing and removing the stain and the blemish caused by that specific sin.” (Likutei Amarim, Chapter 24)

This year, parshat Balak falls on July 23. In a multifaith initiative called “Together To End Solitary,” begun by people held in solitary in California’s Pelican Bay prison, activists throughout the U.S. are using the 23rd of every month to call for an end to the torture of solitary confinement. The 23rd, of course, highlights the 23 hours a day in which more than 80,000 adults and youth are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers–for months, years, even decades.

Isolation as it is practiced in American institutions today indulges our basest punitive impulses to “seek the death of the sinner” and assails our higher Jewish values of rehabilitation and reconciliation. Isolation is widely recognized as a form of psychological torture that destroys peoples’ minds and utterly crushes their spirits; the practice may not cause physical death (though suicide rate/attempts of those in isolation is unbearably high), but it certainly threatens spiritual death. Isolation routinely causes profound despair and is far more punitive than curative. Rather than “remove the stain” of a misguided behavior, isolation generally aggravates it. Crippling rather than encouraging feelings of repentance, isolation diminishes peoples’ desires and even ability to “return.” (Recidivism rates among those in solitary confinement are infamously high.)

But don’t take my word for it. Cesar Francisco Villa, who has been in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay for 11 years, reports:

My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore. Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling of my mind must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me…

There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy, and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening.

This would be the time it’s best to hold rigid. Take a deep breath. Try to convince yourself there’s an ounce of good left in you. This is not a picture of yourself you want anyone to see.

Tragically, reports like Mr. Villa’s are common from people held in solitary confinement, even for considerably shorter periods of time. These accounts make painfully clear that solitary confinement flies in the face of Jewish conceptions of justice that value, and indeed demand, compassion and efforts to rehabilitate.

And parshat Balak and Jonah come to remind us that we need to do this, and why we should. When Jonah expresses his utter dismay at God’s forgiveness of the people of Tarshish, God responds by reminding Jonah how deeply God loves God’s creation. Perhaps God refuses to curse Israel even at our lowest moments (remember, Simeon and Levi have actually committed a heinous mass murder!) because God loves us so profoundly.

The ultimate teaching for us is two-fold:

Ideally, in our meting out of criminal justice, our regard – and even love – for humanity and human dignity should prevail over our fear and anger towards even those who have done us wrong. But no matter our feelings, we are obligated to pursue justice that rehabilitates and re-integrates, and to outright reject overly punitive punishments like solitary confinement – that do devastating and irreversible harm.

When he stood on the heights of Moab and gazed upon the good Israelite society below, Balaam’s would-be curse was transformed in his mouth into blessing. May we work diligently for the day when the ineffective and immoral practice of solitary confinement is abolished, and when our criminal justice system as a whole is restructured to promote rehabilitation and restorative justice. Together let us imagine and create a reality in which we can look upon our criminal justice system not as broken, not as a blight, not as a curse – but as an instrument of our highest visions of ourselves and of one another.


Rabbi Rachel Gartner is Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Georgetown University. In June, she began a two-year term as Co-Chair of the T’ruah board.