Lessons from the Unexpected
This week's Dvar Torah was written by Dr. Sandra Lilienthal. In 2015, she received the prestigious Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Dr. Lilienthal has over 25 years of experience in Jewish Education. Click here to read more. She is teaching the CAJE Adult Learning summer course: JEWISH ANSWERS TO LIFE'S MOST CHALLENGING QUESTIONS
This week’s combined Torah portion, Chukat-Balak , includes the story of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam (called Bilam in Hebrew) and his talking donkey . The portion of Balak opens with the king of Moav, (Balak), having heard what happened with the nations who fought against Israel.
Scared of a potential conflict with the Israelites, the king hires the prophet Balaam to curse the people who “had come out of Egypt .” Balaam asks God for permission to go and receives a “no.” King Balak then sends a second group of messengers to ask Balaam to go curse the Israelites. Once again, Balaam asks God for permission and this time God allows him to go on the condition that the prophet will only speak what God allows him to say.
On his way to curse the Children of Israel (which instead he ends up blessing with the famous words from Numbers/ BeMidbar 24:5 of Mah Tovu – How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel ), Balaam’s donkey sees an angel of God standing in the road with a sword drawn and veers off the road . Balaam is furious at the donkey and hits it to make it turn back onto the road.
The donkey sees the angel blocking its path for a second time and presses itself against a barrier to avoid the angel, which also presses Balaam’s leg into the wall. Balaam once again hits the donkey.
This repeats itself a third time, at which point the donkey starts talking and reminds Balaam it has never done something like this, having always been obedient . Then suddenly, Balaam sees the angel of God , who reprimands him for having hit the donkey, telling him that the donkey actually saved his life!
If not for the donkey, said the angel, I would have killed you. At this point, Balaam says: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you [the angel of God] were standing in my way on the road.”
Let us first address the elephant (I mean – the donkey) in the room. A talking donkey? Really??
Maimonides, in his magnum opus Moreh Nevuchim , states that every time the Bible refers to an angel, it means the person was dreaming; he had a prophetic vision. For a rationalist like Maimonides, angels do not simply appear, neither do donkeys talk.
While most of us would be happy with this explanation, Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers) states that on the first Friday of Creation, as the sun was about to set bringing in the first Shabbat of the Universe, God created some miracles that would be revealed later. Among them was the talking donkey. I will come back to the donkey later.
But now I want to ask what seems to me a more relevant question on this parashah: If Balaam had not seen the angel, then why does he say he sinned? Is it a sin not to see? He could have said, in modern words, “Ooops – my bad!” But a sin? There are two important points in this very simple sentence.
First – what does it mean to sin? The Hebrew word for sin used in this verse is chet . Chet literally means ‘to miss the mark;’ it is the word used in archery to refer to an arrow that has swerved.
Every one of us makes decisions that do now allow us to reach the target. Every day we make choices that are not the best we could have made. For most of us, these are not horrible mistakes. We are not - God forbid! - killing or stealing.
We just ate something we knew was not good for us, or we said things we knew we should not have said. Nothing major! Yet, Judaism wants us to be aware that even these “small” deviating acts can have consequences and should be avoided.
Second – not knowing, not seeing that the angel was there is not, in and of itself, a sin. The real sin is that Balaam did not investigate or reflect before coming to his own conclusions.
This insight is from the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush, in the 19 th century. He says the story comes to teach us that when something does not seem to be working the way we had expected it to work, we should spend some time reflecting on what we might be overlooking.
The donkey’s behavior was not typical. It had always served its master well. This was out of character.
Instead of simply jumping to the conclusion that the donkey was being lazy, Balaam should have reflected on what could possibly be causing the donkey to act in such a strange, uncharacteristic manner .
Too many times in life, we are quick to judge others, quick in concluding that someone was out of place in their acts or words. The story we read in this week’s portion, cautions us to stop and consider the possible reasons behind an action before making assumptions and coming to conclusions.
And now, we return to the talking donkey – whether the donkey spoke (as per the literal understanding of the Torah text and Pirkei Avot ) or whether Balaam had a dream about the donkey speaking (as per Maimonides) -- I think the message the text is sending is very strong: sometimes even a donkey can see things we cannot, or prefer not , to see .
Let us learn how to open our eyes in more than just the literal sense. Let us learn how to investigate further, before coming to conclusions. Let us pray that we can be smarter than a donkey!
JEWISH ANSWERS TO LIFE'S MOST CHALLENGING QUESTIONS