28 Jun 2018 Parshas Balak: Lessons From a Talking Donkey
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Balak, we meet King Balak and Sorcerer Bila’am, an intriguing Torah personality.
Balak, king of Moav, fearing the strength of the Israelite nation, hires Bilaam, a Midianite sorcerer and prophet, to curse the Jewish nation. Bilaam initially refuses the invitation, as G-d instructs. However, after further requests, Bilaam is granted permission to go and he travels to Balak with great alacrity, in his quest to bring ruination upon the Israelites.
Though he attempts to curse the people multiple times, each attempt is met with failure, as G-d puts poetic, powerful prophecies into his mouth, and instead of cursing the Jewish nation, he recites blessing. So important and evocative are Bilaam’s blessings, that some of the verses are included in our daily, and yearly, prayers.
Towards the beginning of our parsha, as Bilaam is traveling along the way to Balak, the Torah records the strange experience and exchange that occurs between Bilaam and his donkey.
After arising early in the morning, Bilaam saddles his donkey, readying the animal for the journey ahead. Despite G-d’s anger with Bilaam for accepting this mission, he proceeds ahead nonetheless. An angel of Hashem stands before him on the path, blocking his way. The donkey – not Bilaam – perceives the angel with a sword in its hand, and the donkey turns from the path and strays into the field.
And the angel then stands in the footpath of the vineyards, once again blocking the path of Bilaam and his donkey, and the donkey, once again, perceives the angel of Hashem, and she presses into the wall, pressing Bilaam’s leg into the wall.
Here we have famous, respected Bilaam, who is accompanied by the officers of Moav, traveling on his way. Unbeknownst to him, an angel is blocking his path. His trusty donkey, who he has ridden upon practically forever (since he was old enough, perhaps, to be riding donkeys!), begins to stray, as she crouches in fear, and stops traveling. Bilaam, who does not know what is happening, strikes his donkey repeatedly, urging – and hoping – that she will resume her travels.
Into this seemingly strange Torah narrative, we are introduced to another amazing element of the story: a dialogue between Bilaam and his donkey!
And G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilaam: What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times? And Bilaam said to the donkey: Because you have mocked me! If there were a sword in my hand, I would now have killed you!
And the donkey said to Bilaam: Am I not your she-donkey, that you have ridden upon me from your inception until this day? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you? And he said, no.
And Hashem uncovered Bilaam’s eyes and he saw the angel of Hashem standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand… (Bamidbar 22:21-31).
How special was this talking donkey?
Chazal teach that the mouth of the donkey was created during the Six Days of Creation, on erev Shabbos bein ha’she’mashos (Friday late afternoon, going into Shabbos) (Avos 5:6).
The Bartenura explains פִּי הָאָתוֹן. בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת נִגְזַר עָלֶיהָ שֶׁתְּדַבֵּר עִם בִּלְעָם – the mouth of the donkey: On that first erev Shabbos, at twilight, it was decreed upon her (the donkey) that she would speak to Bilaam.
We learn this narrative of the Torah and we wonder at its incredible story; how could a donkey talk!? What do we learn from this? What does it mean? Should it be understood according to pashut pshat or derash (simple understanding of the text or deeper level of interpretation)? Isn’t that strange, we marvel, how – and why – does a donkey even need to talk!?
Perhaps we are so astonished at the talking donkey because we forget a fundamental truism of all existence in this world.
Do we wonder why and how the trees once again blossom in the spring, giving forth buds, leaves and even fruit?
Do we marvel at the flower beds that abound come summer, with their deep oranges, brights yellows, hot pinks, soft lavenders, sea-and-sky-blues, pale whites, and all-shades-of-greens?
Do we try to explain the crashing waves of the sea on the shore, and the call of the gull as it circles over head?
Do we give deep thanks for every single breath we take and the miracle that is every moment of life?
Do we wonder how nature – that we are so accustomed to – seemingly runs itself, with the sun rising in the east and setting in the west daily; are we astonished at the waxing and waning monthly of the moon in the night sky; is our breath taken away by the stars twinkling above, from the deepest recesses of heaven?
Perhaps we are so astonished and wonder at a talking donkey, because we often forget that nature itself is just as astonishing.
The Ramban famously teaches (commentary to Shemos 13:16) at the very end of Parshas Bo:
ומן הנסים הגדולים המפורסמים אדם מודה בנסים הנסתרים שהם יסוד התורה כלה, שאין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שנאמין בכל דברינו ומקרינו שכלם נסים. אין בהם טבע ומנהגו של עולם, בין ברבים בין ביחיד
From the great, manifest miracles, a person acknowledges the hidden miracles that are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe until he believes that all of our affairs and experiences are miracles. And there is no element of nature and the ‘ordinary course of the world,’ in them, whether regarding the public or the individual.
As we once again read the story of Bilaam and his talking donkey this week, let us remember that a talking donkey is no less astonishing and miraculous than the “natural” events that surround us in our daily lives.
For if the sun rises and sets, if the grass grows, if children are born, if fish swim and birds fly, then surely, when G-d wills it, donkeys can talk.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,