The parashah for this Shabbat is a fundamentalist’s nightmare. This week we read the lollapalooza granddaddy of all the off-the-wall Bible stories. It’s so preposterous it makes splitting the Red Sea look like child’s play.
This week Balaam, the seer, is riding on his she-ass to deliver a paid-for-in-advance imprecation of the Jews. God, who is not too keen on cursing Israel, stations an angel to block his journey. But there’s a catch: only the donkey can see the angel. The first time, the angel appears with a drawn sword. The animal, intelligently, swerves off the path; Balaam whacks her. The second time, the angel appears in a narrow space between two vineyard walls, mashing Balaam’s foot; Balaam whacks her again. The third time, the angel chooses such a narrow place on the path that the animal’s only option is to lie down; and Balaam whacks her again. Whereupon—here it comes—the she-ass turns to Balaam and speaks[!] :
"Yo, my man, gimme a break! What have I done to you that you should whack me like this three times?"
But Balaam only says to the donkey, "How dare you mock me! If I had a sword, I’d kill you right here and now"(Numbers 22:28–29). (There is no indication whatsoever here that talking to your ass is abnormal!)
Then—and only then—does "the Lord open Balaam’s eyes . . ."(Numbers 22:31). Balaam has a short conversation with the angel and realizes that his donkey has been way ahead of him all along. End of story.
(A digression: It does strike me as significant here that, since they have no lines and play no other role whatsoever in the story , the text also bothers to inform us that Balaam had two servants with him. Who cares? The story works better if he’s alone—unless, of course, the biblical author wants us to recall Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Abraham and Isaac are similarly on a mission that began early in the morning and includes the companionship of two unnamed servants [Genesis 22:3ff.]).
Back to talking donkeys: There are, it seems to me, two primary ways of solving the problem of a talking she-ass. One says it’s a parable about opening the eyes of a "seer"; the other claims that, on some level, the story is really true: donkeys talk!
Robert Alter, the University of California translator and critic, in his classic, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981, pp. 104–107), notes that we are dealing here with a classic and literarily very sophisticated parable.
It comes complete with the standard, mythic three confrontations with an invisible angel, and each one is increasingly difficult to ignore. Indeed, the great "seer"is effectively "blind,"while a dumb animal (and she-asses are notoriously dumb) can see that his mission is contrary to God’s plan. The question now quickly becomes: Can the seer raise himself to the level of a donkey? (And can we?) The story, in other words, is about the folly of a human ego self-destructively preoccupied with its own agenda instead of discerning God’s. It is (according to the parable’s sequence) about being (1) rerouted, (2) squeezed, and finally, (3) stopped until you get your eyes opened and see what’s really going on.
On the other hand, perhaps the story is literally true! The Rabbis think so. They claim that the mouth of Balaam’s talking donkey was one of a handful of otherwise inexplicable exceptions to a natural order that were divinely foreordained on the eve of the sixth day of Creation for only one specific future time and place. (In Pirkei Avot 5:6 there’s a whole list of things, including the mouth of Balaam’s ass, the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korah, and the ram sacrificed instead of Isaac, that were created late on the Friday afternoon of the sixth day of Creation.) Think of them as "post-release software fixes."
The great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig also seems to have bought the whole thing, but with one qualification. He was once asked (I assume apocryphally) by a skeptic if he really believed that Balaam’s ass talked. The philosopher thought for a moment and replied with a wink, "On the Shabbos they read it from the Torah I believe it."
Now we can appreciate and even take some comfort in a teaching in the Zohar (III:152a), which I believe fuses both ways of reading the text:
Rabbi Shimon said: Woe to those who claim that the Torah comes only to relate stories of this world in ordinary language. If this were so, even in our time we could use ordinary language to write an even better Torah! Or if you say the Torah comes to teach affairs of this world, we already have ordinary books that do an even better job. All the words of Scripture conceal supernal truths and awesome secrets.
Come and see: The world above and the world below are
parallel to one another: Israel below and the angels on high. Of the angels it is written in Psalm 104:4, "God makes God’s angels spirits."But once they descend below, they are clothed in the ordinary garments of this world. Indeed, if this were not so, the angels would not be able to survive, nor would the world be able to endure their presence. And, if it is this way with angels, how much the more so for Scripture, which is the very blueprint for all Creation!
In this way a story in the Bible must be read as merely an outer garment. And woe to one who imagines that the outer clothing is the actual scriptural teaching; he will have no portion in the world-to-come. As David said in Psalm 119:18, "Open my eyes so that I may behold the wonders of Your Torah," beneath the superficial garments.
Whether people learn to hear and see in new ways or donkeys really do talk, the story’s teaching is the same: There are things we cannot see that only nature can. And, in the year 2007, who among us now would be so arrogant as to claim that the earth and her creatures do not speak to us all? Indeed, they’re screaming!
"Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Eternal to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness. As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme, he said: '. . . How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!’" (Numbers 24:1–3, 5)
Balaam is not entirely blind. After all, he is to curse the Israelites, but can only bless the people when he views their expanse. He looks, and sees! The spirit of God comes upon him; he speaks as a prophet. His blessing has become an integral part of our liturgy, a beloved expression of the glory of Israel gathered in the sanctuary for prayer.
What does it mean for the spirit of God to come upon him? Could that be, in Heschel’s terms radical amazement (Fritz A. Rothschild, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel [New York: Free Press, 1997], pp. 41–42)? Could it be awe so great that it defies logical description? Take a moment. Consider an occasion when you looked out at an inspiring, expansive gathering of Jews and experienced a sense of awe. How did you respond?
We sing Mah Tovu at the opening of the service as we gather in the sanctuary for prayer and thank God for our myriad blessings. As my teacher, our liturgy scholar Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman reminds us,"In itself, the Birkhot Hashachar is preparatory to the rest of the morning service. It begins, however, with its own internal preparation, consisting of: Mah Tovu . . ."( My People’s Prayer Book , vol. 5, Birkhot Hashachar [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998], p. 51).
Preparation for preparation might sound amusing, but it is no surprise that our tradition provides us with steps to focus and bring kavanah to our prayer. Personal, internal focus is what the first-person singular language of Birchot HaShachar is about. This is so, too, for Mah Tovu . Yet, if we look to the source of Mah Tovu ’s opening words, we find tension that reminds us to look out, to view and see the broader scene, even as we focus on our personal expressions of prayer. Even as we envelop ourselves in our prayers and, for some, our tallitot , we are reminded to look outside, to open our eyes. We, too, can see the expanse of our great community with awe!
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