What Are You Looking at But Not Seeing?

Balak, Numbers 22:2−25:9

It’s June – the month famous for weddings and for gay pride parades all over the world. June was chosen for “pride” events to commemorate the June 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village – a significant milestone in the gay liberation movement.

Almost every year at Jerusalem’s Parade for Pride and Tolerance, counter-protesters bring live donkeys (or sometimes cardboard cutouts of donkeys) to symbolize what they label as the “bestial nature” of the pride parade. It’s sad that religious people protest against the advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and pleas for tolerance. The counter-protesters’ choice of “beasts” is ironic: of all the animals, why would Jews well-versed in Torah choose donkeys for this purpose?

It’s certainly ironic, given the intrepid donkey who plays a major role in the story told in this week’s Parashat Balak.

The extraordinary story of the prophet Balaam and his talking she-donkey is a narrative about humans who think they know best, and come to learn otherwise. Balaam is hired by King Balak to curse the people Israel, saying, “since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Attempting to accommodate the King’s request, Balaam heads out on his donkey toward the Israelite camp, but along the way the donkey swerves three times in an attempt to protect Balaam from a threatening angel of God that only the donkey can see. More infuriated each time the donkey stops or swerves, Balaam beats her harshly three times. In a last attempt to protect herself and Balaam, the donkey actually talks to Balaam in his own language, saying “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (22:28). Unrepentant, Balaam replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you!” (22:29).

Here’s a good argument for gun (sword) control.

The donkey then says, “ ‘Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?’ And he [Balaam] answered, ‘No’ ” (22:30). Balaam offers no apology to his devoted donkey nor does he ever express surprise that she speaks his language!

The contemporary British rabbi, theologian, and Bible scholar Jonathan Magonet asks a simple question in his essay entitled: “How a Donkey Reads the Bible – On Interpretation.” If you were a donkey reading the Bible, what would you look for? His answer: you would look for stories about donkeys. There are quite a few, as it turns out, and the one in this week’s Torah portion tops the list. And you wouldn’t just look for the stories, Rabbi Magonet notes; you might also put a different spin on them than, say, the prophet Balaam would (or than a religious protester against the Jerusalem Parade for Pride and Tolerance would). But you don’t have to be a donkey to recognize that Balaam’s unnamed she-donkey is the hero of this story. The brave talking donkey, equal parts wisdom and humor, is an amazement – so much so that the Rabbis list her mouth as one of the ten extraordinary creations that God created at twilight just before the first Shabbat, along with the rainbow, manna, and other creations (Pirkei Avot 5:6).

The final verse of this week’s haftarah, from the prophet Micah (6:8), also provides insight into the story of Balaam and his donkey. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut offers a poignant translation of this well-known verse: “Mortals/People have told you what is good, but what does the Eternal seek from you? Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

In this Torah portion, the mortals Balak and Balaam demonstrate what they think is good, namely: to fear alien people (in this case, the Israelites); to take up arms against them; to curse them; to use violence against an innocent animal; to punish those who disagree with them; to allow anger to rage out of control; not to listen to advice or information; and to use a God-given talent (blessing and cursing) in the service of murder.

But what does this story suggest that God seeks of people? The answer seems the opposite of nearly every tendency they (we?) have. By means of this story, God would have us do the following:

  1. Try to see goodness in that which is strange to us, for the words God puts in Balaam’s mouth turn his intended curse into a blessing (and a familiar part of the morning liturgy: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob,” (Numbers 24:5)
  2. Treat aliens (including donkeys) with kindness, not cruelty
  3. Listen to others, even those whom we regard as less powerful or important than we are (if the donkey “had not shied away from me,” the Angel tells Balaam, “you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her,” 22:33)
  4. Avoid arrogance or a sense of entitlement in ourselves
  5. Speak, see, and hear only what God would have us speak, see, and hear

If we will do all or even some of the above, much in the world may come to look different to us: beautiful instead of frightening, wise instead of stubborn, peaceful instead of troublesome, friendly instead of hostile. Only then will we begin to “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

Reference Materials:

10th Gay Pride Parade Set to Kick Off in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Post)

Jonathan Magonet, “How a Donkey Reads the Bible – On Interpretation,” in A Rabbi’s Bible (London: SCM Press, 1991), 60f

Midrash Rabbah: Numbers, vol. II (London: Soncino Press), 1983, pp. 13-15

W. Gunther Plaut, and Chaim Stern, “Haftarah for Balak,” The Haftarah Commentary (New York: UAHC Press, 1996), pp. 388-395

Portions of this essay appeared previously in Living Torah: Selections from Seven Years of Torat Chayim, Elaine Rose Glickman, ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), pp. 370-371

Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D. is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles. Founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, today BCC is an inclusive community of progressive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual Jews, and their families and friends. Rabbi Edwards’ writing appears in books including Kulanu: All of Us (a URJ handbook for congregational inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews) and The Torah: A Women's Commentary, published by URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism.

Donkeys and Awe

Daver Acher By: David Z. Vaisberg

In God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel observes:

Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward history and nature. . . He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. Looking at the world he would say, "This is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes." (Psalms 118:23)1

To be open to seeing layers deeper than the surface, we must be open to wonderment.

When something a little out of the ordinary occurs, someone preoccupied may respond, consciously or not, "I've seen it all, and I've got too much on my mind to really pay attention to anything right now." We have all been there, and when we are there too long, we lose our ability to enjoy this spectacular world.

Let's apply this to Balaam's conversation with his she-donkey.

Donkey: What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?

Balaam: You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you! (Dialogue from Numbers 22:28-29)

As far as we know, this is the first time Balaam has ever encountered a talking donkey, and yet, there's no, "Ah, a talking donkey!"; there’s no radical amazement for this prophet of convenience. Rather, Balaam is so caught up with the inconvenience he experiences that he fails to note the nature-defying miracle upon which he is sitting!

We point the finger at Balaam because we see ourselves in him. We all have the potential to be prophets: to look around and see what needs to be done, act upon these observations, and share them with others. We all have had moments in our lives where we experienced the sacred – where we were completely awestruck by the greatness of Creation. Perhaps it was that first time seeing the earth fall away from that airplane window or being present at childbirth.

It is easy to be open to the Divine when we're captivated in a moment and can focus, and it is easy to spend time at Mitzvah Day or during Shabbat services to think about what social justice projects need to be tackled. Much harder is being open to the Divine when we are ankle-deep in the muck of daily life, busy, perhaps frustrated, and just trying to make that deadline.

The trick is to surpass Balaam's example and really seek those moments that call for radical amazement. Rather than waiting for some angel to open our eyes, we must find ways to do it ourselves. Try to find a few moments this week to say, "Wow, it's a talking donkey," "Wow, this world is incredible," or more importantly, "Wow, look at these gifts with which I have been blessed." If we note, in radical amazement, that these gifts in our lives are divine, maybe, just maybe, we'll treat them as such, and do the best that we can to give these gifts in turn to the world around us.

  1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Jason Aronson, 1987) p. 45

Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Edison, New Jersey, and lives with his wife, Miriam Palmer-Sherman, and their (non-speaking) dog and three cats in Metuchen, New Jersey.

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

Originally published: