2004The story in Parshat Balak begins with the Israelite encampment at the borders of Moab. Balak, King of Moab, feels threatened by the multitudes of Israelites at his doorstep and enlists the help of the well-known gentile "seer" Balaam. Knowing of Balaam's power, Balak wishes to hire Balaam to curse them and drive them away from Moab. Balaam asks to sleep on it, and G-d tells him he must not go, for the Israelites are blessed.
Blessings of Sight and Speech
What follows is an intriguing and amusing narrative that emphasizes the importance and wisdom of G-d's commandments and His ultimate power in controlling even the most renowned seer.
Balak is so persistent in his hopes of cursing the Israelites that he sends a large delegation to Balaam after the initial rejection, pleading:
17) "I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me. Only come and damn this people for me."
18) Balaam replied to Balak's officials, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my G-d."
G-d then surprises everyone. He orders Balaam to go with Balak's officials, even though He disapproves of cursing the Israelites, who are by His own words, "blessed" (v. 12). This apparent contradiction sets the stage for conflict in the following verses.
In an apparent turnabout, G-d becomes angry with Balaam for accepting Balak's invitation and places an angel to block his path. However, only the donkey can see the angel, causing her to turn back from the road. Balaam becomes angry with his donkey and beats her three times with his stick.
28) Then the Lord opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?
29) Balaam said to the ass, "You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you."
30) The ass said to Balaam, "Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you? And he answered, "No."
31) Then the Lord uncovered Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.
32) The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me.
33) And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her."
34) Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, "I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back." But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, "Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you."
Your Torah Navigator
1. As a non-Israelite prophet, how is Balaam's relationship with the Lord significant to the understanding of the text?
2. Why doesn't Balaam immediately refuse Balak's invitation the second time, and what does that say about his character?
3. Why does G-d change his mind about allowing Balaam to meet Balak? What are the results?
4. How does the incident with the she-ass change the nature of the relationship between G-d and Balaam?
At first, the thought of a talking donkey may bring up memories of the hilarious and adorable animated character portrayed by Eddie Murphy in the blockbuster movie "Shrek." However, the donkey from this parsha is not simply comic relief; she serves a different purpose altogether. In this instance, the text cleverly plays with the themes of speech and sight and shows the value of God's commandments and His clear dominion over all living creatures.
Both Balaam and the donkey act as conduits for G-d's message in the parsha. As a prophet, Balaam can only tell Balak what the Lord has commanded him. Despite Balaam's many attempts to seek a curse from the Lord on Balak's behalf, G-d instead places blessings for Israel in his mouth. Balaam therefore turns away from his intentions and is filled with the spirit of the Lord, poetically praising the encampment of Israel with the words of Mah-Tovu: "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)"
Likewise, G-d gives the she-ass the ability to speak in order to rebuke Balaam for his blind anger. The fact that even the simple ass was able to see the angel in its path contrasts the Balaam's inability to perceive his limitations. G-d opens Balaam's eyes to the existence of the angel, grants him prophecy, and instead of the expected curses, places the blessings for Israel in his mouth. The text thus reminds us that G-d has ultimate command over all living things -- in this case, from the most renowned prophet to a simple donkey -- and that by blindly following our desires, we are in danger of wrongly fulfilling G-d's commandments.
Prepared by David I. Bernay, Iyyun Fellow, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Additional commentaries and text studies on Balak at MyJewishLearning.com.