"You know, in some cultures, donkeys are revered as the smartest of animals, especially us talking ones."
("Donkey" in Shrek 2, Dreamworks, 2004)
The use of comedy in Jewish storytelling is a very powerful tool for conveying the serious wisdom of our tradition. Often, the Torah introduces us to a wide range of colorful characters–intriguing men, women, and creatures–in order to infuse the stories of the Torah with wit and humor. These personalities have much to teach us about how our ancestors related to each other and the world at-large. Our Torah portion this week, Balak, is on the surface, quite absurd. Still, words contained within it made their way into our liturgy. So the insights found in the narrative had great significance for our predecessors, and still do for us today. Though funny, the messages found beneath the text this week elevate the foolishness of the story we read to a level of sagacity. The humor of the tale is replaced at its core with prevailing and consistent lessons from our ancestors: our words have power and our speech is holy; all things that live communicate with us; and curses can be transformed into blessings.
In the parashah we read this week, a non-Israelite prophet named Balaam is called upon to curse the Israelites by the King of Moab, Balak. However, "God said to Balaam, 'Do not go with them! You must not curse that people, for they are blessed' " (Numbers 22:12). Giving into his greed–for Balak offered silver and gold–Balaam heads to the place where he is supposed to curse the Children of Israel. Yet Balaam is stalled by his donkey, which refused to follow his orders, "when the ass (she-donkey) caught sight of the angel of the Eternal standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass (she-donkey) swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass (she-donkey) to turn it back onto the road" (Numbers 23:23). Like an indignant teenager, the stubborn mule talks back to him. And when Balaam arrives at the place where he attempts to curse Israel, his mouth opens, only to bless us! So Balak drags him to a different mountaintop, but again, Balaam only says what God desires, blessing the Children of Israel a second time. Furious, Balak commands him to stop, saying, "Don't curse them and don't bless them" (Numbers 23:25). But Balaam knows that God wants him to bless Israel. So he offers a third (now famous) blessing, "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel," Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov (Numbers 24:5).
On the surface it is a silly story. But is it entirely ridiculous that animals speak in the tale? That a non-Israelite dialogues directly with God? That his curses come out as blessings? Our parashah has serious messages to teach. One is that animals have keen senses and communicate with us all of the time. Rashi and Ramban disagree regarding what the she-donkey saw. According to Rashi, animals are allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from the human eye, because human intelligence would cause people to live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them (Rashi on Numbers 22:23). Ramban asserts that angels are not physical beings and cannot be seen by people or animals, unless they assume human form–as when they visited Abraham. In Balaam's case, it was not that the she-donkey actually saw the angel, rather, it sensed that it was in danger, for figuratively, a being with a drawn sword stood before it (Ramban on Numbers 22:23).
It is of no small significance that the Torah recognizes that there are prophets outside of Judaism. Yes, there are strong elements of particularism to this tale, such as how God favors the Children of Israel. Yet even our ancestors recognized that every religious community has its mystics. What makes the Children of Israel remarkable is our willingness to receive the prophetic message. The success of any religious leader depends on how ready their community is to hear the message, and follow through on it. Our ancestors were quick to say, "Let us do and listen!" Balaam's prophecy was meaningful because our people heard it, so much so that his words, Mah tovu, open our daily prayer services.
Finally, what about your life feels like a curse, like a dark cloud hanging over you? Is it something physical? Financial? The loss of a relationship or loved one? How might you change your perspective? Overcoming challenges can shape you into a stronger, more loving, more compassionate person. Those who focus only on the negative, tend to only see the curses in their lives. Focusing on the positive helps you learn from what is plaguing. It helps you to see the blessings even in the challenges you are facing in life. Sometimes you have to strain to see even a slightly positive aspect in your situation, but when you find it, grab on to it! Focus on it repeatedly, throughout the day, day after day, and in time, you may come to know the blessings hidden beneath it.
Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice.
Balaam's donkey is one of two verbal animals in the Torah: the other is the serpent in the Garden of Eden. While the latter's tempting words lead to God's cursing humankind (Genesis 3:16-19), the donkey speaks up to preempt the cursing of the Israelites. The donkey is so remarkable that the Rabbis considered its mouth to be one of the ten miraculous objects created during the twilight of first Sabbath eve (Mishnah, Avot 5:6).
Rabbi Rice points out that according to Ramban, Balaam's donkey feared God's angel and refused to continue down the path to curse the Israelites.
Let's look at Ramban's point closely: The donkey "sensed that something frightened her . . . and when the miracle happened and the Creator put speech into her . . . [she did not say anything that indicated that] she knew what she was doing. She was compelled to do what she did. She did not say, 'There's is an angel of Adonai opposite me with a flaming sword in his hand.' For she did not attain the achievement to know at all."
Ramban's argument is that animals possess a kind of understanding about the world around them, we might call it "awareness," that allows them protect themselves from danger. But, according to Ramban, they lack "knowing," that is, a higher order cognitive ability that allows them to speculate about causation (why things happen). The donkey did not know what was stopping her, she only knew that it was something frightening. "Knowing," in Ramban's words, that is, understanding causation, is one of the traits that makes human beings unique.
Here, in our parashah, we find an example of a truth shared by both Jewish tradition and contemporary biology: Sometimes it takes an animal to show us what it really means to be human.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is completing his Ph.D. in Jewish history at Columbia University. This summer, he will join the clergy at Washington Hebrew Congregation as an assistant rabbi.
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