(With apologies for such a belated vort)
Looking back at Parashat Balak, one might be compelled to ask why exactly is this story included within the book of Numbers. In particular, the Moabite prophet Balaam’s peculiar exchange with his donkey seems rather random when considered within the larger narrative arc of the story.
As the only instance of a speaking animal since the cunning snake in Genesis, one might expect our portion’s donkey to say something of exceeding importance and weight. Instead, she utters something utterly understated and even banal: she asks her master why he struck her three times when she has never wronged him. The simplicity of the dialogue and the repetitive rhythm of the characters’ actions here all suggest an almost fable-like story structure. As such, we can perhaps most productively view this story as primarily didactic in nature.
What is the relevance of the speaking donkey? The Midrash Rabbah on the book of the Numbers explains that this scene represents the ultimate reversal of nature. Balaam was the wisest of men, and here he is upstaged by his donkey, the lowest of animals. For a more lofty and respectful view on the man-animal relationship however, let us turn our attention to a more inspiring passage found in the book of Job (Job 12:7-8):
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you
Here animals can be understood as possessing the very essence and wisdom of our earth. To communicate with animals is to share in their well-being, which is ultimately our well-being as humans. Perhaps this ‘dialogue’ does not take place in actual words, as it does in Parashat Balak, but rather, in actions, such as the way we relate to the environment and to our fellow creatures inhabiting this earth. Animals serve as the index of our respect for our planet, and, as we see from the recent BP disaster, when we turn away from our responsibility, the result to the earth and to the creatures which inhabit it is devastating.
If we are thinking about what it means to relate meaningfully to animals, we also must consider what it actually means to be human. As humans, we possess the intelligence and power to be deliberately holy beings. From the text alone, it appears the prophet Balaam prophesizes in the name of “Hashem, my God.” The overwhelming majority of the midrashic commentators pounce on this phrase and insist, rather vehemently, that Balaam was not a monotheistic, but rather, an idol worshipper, diviner, and a generally evil person. (Intriguing evidence of the former can be found in an inscription discovered in 1967 in the plains of the Jordan, at a site identified with Sukkoth in the area of the Jabok river. These fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods” include a description of a goddess, fear of the havoc she could wreck, and an interesting array of god-names.)
The overarching message, however, seems clear: whereas animals are all too often subjugated to their masters’ will (or that of other creatures), man possesses the unique capacity both for flaw and transcendent holiness, as we also learn through the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake. How? Through freedom of choice.
Balaam even knew in advance that his attempts to curse the Jews would ultimately prove abortive, but he kept trying—a weakness on his part. Despite his intimate knowledge of God (with God writ large or god in the plural, depending on your understanding of the text), Balaam remained a slave to his own social context. Balaam certainly was capable of achieving holiness, but he failed by succumbing to external pressures until only a donkey could teach him otherwise.
Interestingly, all but one of the Biblical characters in the Pentateuch whose names are immortalized as parasha titles are figures born as non-Jews. In the cases of Noah, Sarah, and Jethro, each drew closer to God in her/his own way through righteous and deliberate actions (Sarah and Jethro being ‘Jews by choice,’ but I contend that in our modern times all Jews are Jews by choice—today to identify actively as Jewish is no small feat). Such is most certainly not the case with Balak, the Moabite king after whom this pericope is named. All we know of Balak is his fear and desire to thwart the Israelites in their attempt to pass through the land. In this way, Balak seems to forgo our most interesting and empowering birthright as humans: our capacity for choice and constructive conflict resolution.
Which leads into this coming Shabbat’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, which immediately follows Parashat Balak. The only born-Jew to have a portion named after him, Pinchas, is, in a way, the Jewish counterpart of Balak, the Moabite king. Here again, we are revealed the disastrous consequences of an over-zealous man whose only response to a perceived threat is violence and destruction. Ironically, the house of David emerges from a Moabite woman (Ruth), as if to teach us, at this intersection between the Balak and Pinchas narrative, that all Jews originate from non-Jews, and in all cases (whether Jew or non-Jew), holiness is a choice, and constructive co-existence is a worthy uphill battle.
(And If you’re a fan of morals and religious teachings embodied through speaking animals, I hereby commend yourattention to 13th century Spanish qabbalist R’ Isaac Ibn Sahula’s wonderfully understated collection of fables, Meshal HaQadmoni, a kind of Jewish, Torah-inspired answer to Aesop’s fables.)