2005Parshat Balak is one of the richest and strangest Torah portions of the entire cycle of weekly readings. The Moabite King Balak, frightened by the strength of the children of Israel, recruits the famous prophet Balaam to curse the nation of Israel. Balaam agrees to help Balak in any way he can but notes that he will speak only as God tells him. Balaam tries three times to curse Israel and each time a blessing comes out of his mouth.
I Can See Clearly Now
I want to focus on what happens in between the recruitment of Balaam and his failure to deliver a quality curse. Balaam is traveling to meet with Balak when something interesting happens. Despite the fact that Balaam has received permission from God to go to Balak in Chapter 22:20, God seems to change His mind only two verses later.
"But God was incensed at his [Balaam's] going; so an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary." (Numbers 22:22)
This occurrence in and of itself seems a bit odd. Why would God condone Balaam's trip in one instant and then condemn it the next? But the story takes yet another twist. Balaam was riding on his donkey when all of the sudden:
"When the donkey caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat his donkey to turn her back onto the road." (22:23)
This occurs again. The donkey sees the fiery angel of God blocking the path and swerves off the path to try to avoid it. Balaam does not appear to see this angel, and each time he hits the donkey until the donkey veers back onto the desired course.
The third time the donkey sees the angel, the donkey lies down and stops moving. This infuriates Balaam, who begins beating the donkey. And then something strange happens. The donkey talks. She asks Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" Perhaps even more strange is the fact that Balaam responds to the donkey as if it were normal that the donkey spoke to him. Balaam responds that the donkey has embarrassed him so much that if he had a sword he would kill the donkey on the spot.
Obviously the donkey is very upset by this and puts Balaam in his place by saying, "Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?" Of course, Balaam can only sheepishly respond "no," and then he sees the angel for the first time and truly understands his error.
There is much that can be said about the story of Balaam and his donkey and many questions that need to be answered. Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, suggests that the entire incident was a prophetic vision, and none of it really happened.
Nachmanides, also a medieval commentator, suggests that the donkey did in fact talk to Balaam to remind him and future readers that God can control even a human's most basic functions. The ability to speak is something that God can give even to a donkey, and if God can give speech to a donkey then God can take speech away from humans.
The Sforno, a Renaissance-era Bible commentator, takes a different approach. He suggests that the story is really about paying attention to signs. The behavior of the donkey should have been a sign to Balaam that what he was about to do was not good in the eyes of God.
However, I think that at its most basic level this story of Balaam and his donkey is about two very important things. First and foremost, it is about the power and importance of words. Words have the ability to build up or break down, to heal or to hurt, to bless or to curse. The fact that Balaam is seemingly unaware of the power he has to hurt people through his words is what infuriates God. We are all given permission by God to say whatever we wish. The gift of speech and communication is unlike any other gift that God has given us, but it is one that must be treated with respect and with the cognizance of the power it has.
Perhaps more importantly, this is a story about trust. Balaam is too consumed with being embarrassed in front of the messengers of Balak who are accompanying him on his journey to "listen" to the advice and warnings of one of his most trusted allies. The donkey maybe an animal incapable of speech, perhaps forgotten or taken for granted, but ultimately, the donkey is the only one who can truly see everything that lies in front of her master. The question of who is really the master in this story is an interesting one and leads me to one final thought.
In life we can often get stuck on the proverbial high horse and forget that our most trusted companions - and even sometimes the people in our lives who we think cannot possibly see or understand what we are going through - are the people with the clearest vision and the people whom we can trust the most. Not everyone will be called upon in life to be a leader or a prophet like Balaam, but it is important to remember that sometimes the most unlikely of people have the clearest vision and are the most capable of leading us in the right direction.
I wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom, one that is filled with happiness, clarity of vision and trust in those who help you get from one place to the next on your own life journey.
Prepared by Reuben Posner, Fellow at Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Additional commentaries and text studies on Balak at MyJewishLearning.com.