This week’s Torah portion could be entitled “The Jackass and the Donkey.”
The jackass is Balaam, the seer who’s hired by Balak to curse the Israelites. He takes his donkey and embarks on his mission. It’s a mission that God doesn’t think too highly of, for obvious reasons, so God places an angel right in Balaam’s path. But there’s a catch — only the donkey can see the angel. One thing leads to another and the poor donkey gets whacked not once, but three times, by Balaam when the angel blocks his path. If you didn’t like Balaam before, now you have even more reason to dislike him. He’s a false prophet and an animal beater.
Then something amazing happens. The donkey starts talking to Balaam, wanting to know, reasonably, why he was getting beaten up. Balaam doesn’t find anything unusual about his donkey talking to him, which says something about Balaam right there. He accuses the donkey of mocking him and tells the donkey he would’ve stabbed him with a sword if he’d had one. Even then Balaam doesn’t realize how dumb he sounds. He was ready to curse the Israelites off the face of the earth but he would need a sword to kill a poor donkey. Finally God opens Balaam’s eyes to the presence of the angel. Balaam sees that his ass was the true seer and that he, the false seer, was the true ass.
More than a few commentators have compared the talking donkey to another cultural icon – Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the 1960s TV show. Like Balaam’s donkey, Mr. Ed could only be heard by one person, Wilbur Post. Wilbur was a nice but bumbling guy who was always getting shown up by his horse, who was both intelligent and clever. We see a lot of talking animals in literature. Think of Aesop’s fables. The rabbits in “Watership Down.” Or one of the best-loved children’s books of all time, “Charlotte’s Web,” where Charlotte the spider takes on a mission to save Wilbur the pig from the slaughterhouse. When children learn about this Torah portion, they probably think of another talking animal from the movies, the donkey in “Shrek” (with the voice of Eddie Murphy). It’s believed that this donkey was, in fact, based on Balaam’s talking ass.
It should be noted that there’s only one other instance in the Torah where an animal talks, and that’s the snake in the Garden of Eden. There’s no question that it’s a powerful device. But is it so far-fetched to be this unusual, really?
We attach human qualities to animals all the time. Everyone talks to their dog or cat. If you have a bird, they even answer back. We’re always amazed by the intelligence displayed by guide dogs and service dogs, dolphins and, of course, primates. There was a guide dog in the news this week that put itself in front of a car to prevent its owner from being struck. The dog was injured, but survived, and was hailed for its remarkable loyalty. And rightly so.
I don’t think most people would go to those lengths to save a life that’s not our own. We would do it instinctively for someone we love – a child, for instance – and there are exceptional people who rescue strangers from drowning or jump onto the subway tracks to save a person who fell. But as humans we tend to think too much – about our own personal safety, or how much our loved ones would suffer if we put ourselves needlessly in harm’s way. It’s hard to fault ourselves for a quality that’s innately human and even sensible. But the animals in our lives don’t over-think. They act, and they do it for the right reasons. They’re loyal. Kind. Generous of spirit. They give us a big greeting when we come home. Nora Ephron, whose passing I mentioned last week, had my favorite quote about that: “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
The rabbis regard the talking donkey as a miracle. But not just any ordinary miracle. In the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, the rabbis list 10 supernatural events that were arranged by God at one very specific time — at twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation, right before the Sabbath. The list includes things like the rainbow that God left as a sign for Moses and his family. The mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach and his followers. The script of the original tablets with the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God. Balaam’s talking ass is given equal significance with these events.
Most Orthodox Jews believe the donkey actually gained the power of speech and talked to Balaam. As Reform Jews, we tend not to agree with this interpretation. We look for the symbolism and ask ourselves what message is being conveyed to us. What meaning can a talking donkey have in our lives? The answer is: quite a lot.
The donkey is everything Balaam isn’t. She — and it’s interesting to note that the donkey is a she – is honest, perceptive, and possessed with the trait we think of as horse sense. And, unlike Balaam, it’s the donkey’s natural inclination to do good. She doesn’t over-think whether or not to stop when she sees the angel. She doesn’t change her mind or worry about her own well-being. She acts out of loyalty to her owner. Simply put, she does God’s will.
The qualities that God wants us to display – decency, kindness toward others – have very little to do with the evolutionary ladder. In Genesis, God gave us dominion over animals. That meant stewardship, authority, even might and power. In Genesis 9:2, God says to Noach: “…let the awe and dread of you be upon all the land animals, and all the birds of the sky, and all that creep on the ground, and all the fish of the sea: they are given into your hands.” But nowhere does it say that dominion over God’s creatures is synonymous with superiority. Balaam’s donkey is a reminder of that. Who’s the finer animal here? The human? I don’t think so.
This talking donkey – and the significance our sages give this so-called “Shabbat miracle” – serves as a reminder that life can, and does, go topsy-turvy on us. This happens with alarming regularity and often when we least expect it. Our personal circumstances change. The world disappoints us. We’re reminded constantly on a global and individual scale that logic and human behavior often run in opposite directions. But sometimes the world needs to go topsy-turvy in order to wake us out of our reverie. It works for Balaam. He realizes the error of his ways and the potential dangers that his false prophecy presents. It works for us, too. Crisis and upheaval are painful, but also healthy. We hit our bumps and our brick walls, but we persevere.
“Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do — then do it with all your strength.” That quote is from someone who relied heavily on divine guidance to lead a people to freedom. His name was not Moses, but George Washington. On July 4th we celebrated his commitment to his cause: to show an oppressed people that, while they may hit obstacles, their potential to do God’s will is limitless.
As we go about our lives, may we all have the strength to realize our own potential. May we continue to respect and appreciate the gift of freedom and recognize the presence of miracles wherever and whenever they appear.
Amen…and Shabbat Shalom.