This Week In Torah
Have any of you seen a talking donkey recently? I know that I haven’t really seen one since I saw the movie “Shrek.” Why do I bring this up? Because a talking donkey features prominently in this week’s torah portion, Parshat Balak. I also want to say how ironic and interesting this is, as we prepare to celebrate the animals in our lives at Temple Emanu El’s 2nd Annual Simchat Chayot (aka “Pet Shabbat) which will take place this Saturday, June 22 at 10:30 a.m. on the Denny & Judy Hershey Terrace.
But I digress! Back to our portion. In Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9, we read about the non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, who was hired by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Israelite people. It’s a strange story, from Balaam’s awareness that his power to curse lies with Adonai, the God of Israel, to his repeated consultations with God to see if maybe now would be a good time to curse the Israelites, to God’s seeming ambivalence about Balaam’s involvement in the scheme, to Balaam’s series of increasingly beautiful blessings, to the story of the Israelites’ bad behavior which immediately follows the blessings bringing a plague on the camp. But the part of the story that draws our attention is not Balaam, but rather the talking donkey.
Why a talking donkey? Over the years, commentators have tried to explain away the talking donkey with such theories as: She didn’t really talk; she brayed and Balaam interpreted. Or the whole donkey incident was a dream sequence. Then there is even a midrash which explains that the donkey was one of the special things God made at sunset the first Friday night of creation, held in waiting until the moment they were needed for miracle duty; because they (donkeys) are created before the time is up, they don’t require God to break and overturn the natural order. God didn’t suddenly give that donkey the ability to talk. The midrash claims that the talking donkey is just one of those normal natural miracles that you don’t happen to notice every day. There’s a logical explanation, but because it’s not immediately apparent, it catches our attention.
Perhaps even more baffling than the talking donkey is Balaam’s reaction – namely, that it doesn’t catch his attention. Instead of saying, “Oh my gosh, a talking donkey!” he continues to argue with it to get it to move. The prophet, whose job it is to understand or even to shape God’s will, cannot see the angel with the big scary sword before him. Balaam fails to sense the presence of the angel, as opposed to his donkey who can see the angel of God and who instinctively veers off course to protect herself. Balaam cannot seem to figure out that something is wrong; even the talking donkey doesn’t tip him off.
Why doesn’t he get the hint? It is because he is working so hard to make the world conform to his wishes that he fails to notice the miracles that make up the world as it actually is. Here he’s missing a big miracle – several miracles actually- over numerous focused attempts to shape how his world works. Balaam is so busy trying to make the donkey move that he doesn’t even notice it talking. He is so focused on cursing the Israelites that he does not notice the angel standing in his way. It is ironic that while he is so caught up trying to do his job as a prophet, he actually loses sight of God’s will that should be expressed in that very role. He misses miracle after miracle, angels, talking animals, the amazing power God has given him if he would only use it appropriately.
What is it that keeps us from noticing the miracles around us? Why do we insist on arguing with the talking donkey? I believe that many of us are blind to miracles out of a sense of fear. The Hebrew word for fear is “yirah.” This word can also mean “awe.” While the word “yirah” does not appear in Parshat Balak, the word “vayar” which means “he saw” does. The two words may not be related as their roots share only two out of three Hebrew letters, but some grammarians would argue that two is enough. It’s certainly enough for a little word play. People in this portion see plenty and they see with the same letters as “yirah” – hinting at the opportunity to experience the situation with awe. But instead they act out of fear, insecurity, and the impulse to be in control. Our job is to see the opportunity, choose to integrate the awe, and experience the miracles and blessings that surround us every day.
I look forward to seeing all of you this Saturday at 10:30 a.m. for our 2nd Annual Pet Shabbat!