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Lessons from Balaam's Donkey: "We're All Dumb Differently!"

Lessons from Balaam's Donkey: "We're All Dumb Differently!"

It should not surprise us that in this week's Torah portion, parashah Balak, the animal that saves Balaam’s life is female. How consistent this is with the theme that it is often the women in the Bible who guide, instruct, or shape the events surrounding surprisingly clueless males.

Beginning with Eve, women like Rebecca, Tamar, the six women of the Exodus, Samson’s unnamed mother, Hannah, Ruth, Vashti, and Esther – are much more savvy than their male counterparts.

But there is more.

Balaam was a world-class sorcerer. The Sages claim that Balaam communicated directly with the Almighty (B. Zevahim 116A) and that he was the gentile equivalent for brilliance of Moses’ himself (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:20). And yet in the story, Balaam is totally oblivious to the presence of God’s messenger while his animal sees the angel clearly. Wow!

When we think of dumb animals, “asses” are the metaphor! And yet in this case, the ass gets it, and Balaam – the smartest man alive – is clueless.

What does that teach us? There is something we can learn from everyone. Never look down on anyone.

I first learned this lesson – very painfully – in the sixth grade. Back then, I was pretty OK in “regular” school subjects like reading, English, and history. I was even OK at math, and, I say proudly, I was the best speller in the class. To be honest, I looked down on those students who had trouble grasping these subjects.

Then I took shop class.

I was the worst at shop. It took me forever to finish my first project, and before I painted my not-so-magnificent dog doorstop, I went to the teacher, Mr. Molinari, for instructions on the final steps. He told me what to do, but I was confused, so I asked him to please go over it again.

Mr. Molinari snapped at me in anger, saying, “You weren’t listening! You’re through for the day!” I had to sit at my workbench, fighting back tears and doing nothing for the rest of the period, while the rest of the guys continued their work.

I get it now.

In shop class, I was the dummy. Mr. Molinari pegged me as a slacker even though all I wanted was to be sure to do the right thing. In the meantime, all of those guys (only boys took shop back then) who were not as good in English and spelling could work me under the table in shop.

What a vital lesson that has been for me in my career as a rabbi! As my former ice hockey coach, Gilbert F. Adams, puts it,  “We’re all dumb differently!”

We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the story of Balaam and the ass, the dumbest of animals was able to help the smartest person in the world see the light.

What does this story teach you and me? Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma said it best: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

To that I would humbly add: And the one who does not look down on anyone!

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. He currently serves Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, FL. A prolific writer, he is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Who Created God?:and Other Essays. Rabbi Fuchs earned a D.Min in Biblical Interpretation from Vanderbilt Divinity School, which, in 2017, named him its “Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.”

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

Published: 6/29/2015

Categories: Jewish Life, Learning, Torah Study
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