There is no doubt that the donkey is the star of Parashat Balak. In an episode that itself is unnecessary to the plot of the Book of Numbers, she is dispensable. And yet she leaps out of the text (as much as a donkey can leap) as one of the most unforgettable characters of the book.
As the Israelites wend their way toward the Promised Land, they begin to conquer the people on their path. Balak, the king of Moab, tries to preempt them by hiring a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam is an interesting figure, a non-Israelite prophet who has access to the word of God. In a prolonged back-and-forth with Balak’s messengers, Balaam decides to take the job despite divine displeasure. As he sets off on the road, his donkey stops him three times, seeing an angel with a sword standing in front of them. Balaam, seeing nothing, yells at her, hits her, and presses her forward. The donkey’s mouth miraculously opens, and she asks him why he is treating her like this: Has she not always been his trusty steed, and has she ever disobeyed him before? Finally, the prophet’s eyes are opened. He speaks with the angel and continues his journey, knowing that he can only speak the words that God gives him. The curses he is commissioned to give turn into blessings, including words that endure in our liturgy as the Mah Tovu prayer (Numbers 24:5). The king of Moab is foiled, and the Israelites march on with divine blessing. Not surprisingly, however, this does not stop them from making their next mistake, as the people blessed by God make another detour into idolatry.
But what happens to the donkey? Where has she come from and where does she go? The ancient Rabbis suggest that the donkey’s speaking mouth was one of the exceptions to the natural order, created in the final moments of the first week of Creation (Pirkei Avot 5:6) — in the Twilight Zone of Genesis. The medieval commentators debate whether the donkey really spoke or whether the whole thing was a dream. Medieval and modern scholars alike agree that the story is meant to be funny, with the donkey who sees more than the prophet. It is entirely possible to see her as a beast of burden who helps carry the story, just as she is a beast of burden for Balaam. But if we look more deeply we can find something more. In a story that is all about perspective, the donkey deserves her turn.
“May be a speaking woman is like an ass — but I can tell you one thing, the ass seen the angel when Balaam didn’t.” These words were spoken by Jarena Lee, the first African American woman to preach the gospel publicly. She was an itinerant preacher with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 19th century at a time when slavery was legal in the United States and neither African Americans nor women were enfranchised to vote. Her words remind us of how “[a female] beast of burden, subjected to physical abuse, the donkey… is the ultimate image of powerlessness in the social hierarchy.”1 For the donkey to have a voice transforms power dynamics as much as when God turns curses into blessings. Strikingly, when the donkey speaks up, she does not tell the prophet about the angel standing in front of him. Rather, she draws his attention to what he did wrong: “on his abuse and her refusal to accept it.”2
Balaam apologizes to God, but he does not apologize to the donkey.3 It is God who calls him on his behavior: “If she [the donkey] had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her” (Numbers 22:33). This gives the commentators an opportunity to discuss the donkey’s fate. Rashi (French, 11th century) argues that God kills the donkey after this episode. Why? To preserve Balaam’s dignity — “to spare [him] the shame of having people point her out: 'That is the donkey who challenged Balaam and left him without a comeback'.” Moreover, this points to why animals in general have no (humanly understandable) speech: “for if she had the power of speech, humans would not be able to subjugate her. For she was the most foolish of beasts and he was the wisest of wise men, and as soon as she spoke, he was unable to stand before her” (B’midbar Rabbah 20:14). The implication is that the perspective of animals in general — and this donkey in particular — pose a threat to human supremacy. They challenge our understanding of the world and the place that we occupy.
In contrast, Abarbanel (Portuguese, 15th century) suggests that the donkey was elevated after this episode: “in fact her animal nature died; she was re-created as a human being, and did not remain a donkey.” What an extraordinary spectrum of responses! And how evocative this is of any threats to the established order, and the responses that emerge. Either the challenging voice is covered up and ignored (the donkey dies), or there is change (the donkey, and her role, are transformed). Although in our biblical text, the donkey simply disappears, she leaves us a legacy. Like a true prophet, she makes us uncomfortable; she makes us think about who we listen to and who we ignore, when to keep silent and when to speak.
“The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields” (Numbers 22:23) — “She left the beaten path and continued forward through the field, where there was no path” (Ibn Ezra, Spanish, 12th century on Numbers 22:23). I like to think that she is still out there somewhere, leading the way.
1. Katherine Clay Bassard, Transforming Scriptures: African-American Women Writers and the Bible (University of Georgia Press, 2010)
2. Diane Aronson Cohen, “Balak: The End of Abuse,” in Elyse Goldstein, ed., The Women’s Torah Commentary, (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2000), p. 304
3. In the context of seeing Balaam’s treatment of the donkey as an abuse of authority, it is worth contrasting his behavior with what is required for true t’shuvah, “repentance.” See Stephen Einstein, “The Role of T’shuvah in Sexual Transgressions,” in Lisa Grushcow, ed., The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality (CCAR Press, 2014), pp.583-86
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, D. Phil., is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal, Canada. Rabbi Grushcow is the author of Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah, the editor of The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, a contributor to The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and a regular columnist with the Canadian Jewish News. She serves as co-president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis.