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Learning to Hear Balaam's Ass

  • Learning to Hear Balaam's Ass

    Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9
D'var Torah By: 

From a thoughtful reading of the story of Balaam's ass (Num. 22:27-32), we recognize that the question posed is not "How can an ass speak?" but "How can we become like Balaam, able to hear what the world has to say to us?"

We are charged to be a nation of prophets and a holy people. The Jewish prophet is not a seer looking for omens in the entrails of birds. The Jewish prophet is a person, like us, who is on the extreme end of a spectrum that begins with those who are deaf to the meanings found in all of creation and extends to those who are capable of recognizing the divine spark in everything.

At the time of the Exodus, the different capacities to understand what was happening was demonstrated by the varied reactions to the plagues. It took three plagues before the magicians could say, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart stiffened. By the time of the plague of hail even Pharaoh's courtiers could recognize God's word and, therefore, brought their livestock indoors to safety. But Pharaoh's heart stiffened.

Stiffening of the heart seems to be the principal cause of inability to hear God's word through world events. And to the contrary, seeing with the eyes of love makes us capable of recognizing God's presence in the world.

Was Balaam really able to see with the eyes of love? We know, from later discussion of him in the Torah, that at some point he ceases to be a prophet and becomes a sorcerer. But at the time of the incident of Balaam's ass, he is able to look on his enemies' camp and say, "How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Num. 24:5) The capacity to hear his ass was the same as the capacity to see the majesty in the camp of Israel.

The Lord is my Adversary?
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Barry Diamond

I often sit in my office with students who praise or criticize their teachers. I ask, "Who are your best teachers? What makes them so good?" The students' answers usually imply: Like good movies, good teachers entertain and challenge. Our society focuses on entertainment, but our Torah portion flashes its light on challenge. In the Torah portion Balak, we see God as challenger, God as adversary.

From the time of creation, relationships between spouses have at times been adversarial. In Genesis 2:18, God calls woman an ezer kenegdo, a "helper against him." The great commentator Rashi takes the term literally to make a wonderful point: "If he [Adam] is worthy, [she will be] a help [ezer]. If he is not worthy [she will be] against him [kenegdo] for strife." Putting aside the issues of gender, we see that once again Torah forces us to reexamine how we understand our relationships. We may think relationships are good only when two partners agree. Torah reminds us that an adversary works like the rudder of a ship, fighting against the flowing water and slowly changing our direction. And what is true for rudders and ships is true for prophets and donkeys.

Our Torah portion places a sharper point on the matter. Balaam categorically refuses to accompany the princes of Moab and curse Israel. However, Balaam tells the princes to stay the night so he can receive God's word in his sleep. God tells Balaam that he may go but only to repeat the words God tells him. The next morning, Balaam leaves with the princes without telling them of this restriction. Is he giving the impression that God will allow him to pronounce a curse on Israel?

As Balaam rides along on his donkey, God sends a messenger as a satan, "an adversary," to block the donkey's way. Notice that the word satan does not have the meaning of a fallen angel or some external force of evil. In fact, God has direct control over the satan, the "adversary," who comes to challenge Balaam for the purpose of teaching him. Only after repeated encounters with the adversary does Balaam finally learn the purpose of his donkey's erratic behavior. By then, he is ready to learn the lesson God wishes to teach. By his silence, Balaam misleads the princes of Moab as to God's intentions, and whoever misleads others in God's name will himself be misled.

As Dr. Ochs has stated so well, our challenge is to hear like Balaam. However, like my students' great teachers, Balaam's teacher was tough. Like the ship's rudder, God steered Balaam off the road but back on the right course. Our task is to learn to recognize when off course is on course and when our adversaries are our teachers.

Reference Materials: 

Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173–1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047–1,067;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 937–960

When do we read Balak

2019, July 20
17 Tammuz, 5779
2022, July 16
17 Tammuz, 5782
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