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This parasha tell the story of King Balak of Moav, who asks the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. God intervenes and makes Bilaam only able to bless the people instead. The Israelite men mix with the women of Moav and Midian and worship strange gods, angering God. The parasha concludes with the story of Pinchas slaying an Israelite man and Midianite woman.

Another voice

Balak by Rob Rabinowitz :: 5768

Robert Rabinowitz grew up in Liverpool and is married to Juliette. He received his BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University and his PhD in philosophy from the University of London. Robert worked for CLAL, the American-Jewish community's foremost institutional advocate of pluralism. He edited the first volume of New Voices in Jewish Thought.

This week's parashah is punctuated by a comic interlude. The heathen prophet Balaam has been requested by the King of Moab, Balak, to curse the Children of Israel when he has a disconcerting encounter with a talking donkey.

Balaam is on his way to curse the massed camps of the Israelites when the donkey on which he is riding sees an angel with a sword blocking the way. Each time the donkey attempts to evade the danger of the armed angel, Balaam becomes more enraged. Finally, the donkey simply drops to the floor and refuses to move. At this, Balaam starts to hit the donkey with a stick.

And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to lead you to beat me these three times?" And Balaam said to the ass, "Because you have mocked me. If I had a sword in my hand now, I would kill you." And the ass said to Balaam, "Am I not your ass upon which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you in this way?" And he said, "No."

At this point, Balaam becomes able to see the angel and realizes that he actually owes his life to the donkey before proceeding on his way to bless the Children of Israel.

The story is unusual for a number of reasons. The Tanach is not very big on comedy. Yet a talking donkey is clearly odd, even for an audience not familiar with Eddie Murphy's donkey in Shrek or Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In addition, we very rarely hear about events in the private lives of non-Israelites and there is also only one other talking animal in the Tanach, the snake in the Garden of Eden.

Why does the narrative break away from the main story to relate the story of Balaam's comic encounter with the miraculous ass?

Balaam's story involves a literal fall, rather than a metaphorical one. But the common themes are easy to spot.

It was illuminating to think about the story of Balaam's donkey on metaphorical lines. The miracle of the donkey has two component parts. First, the donkey sees something that Balaam fails to see. Second, the donkey unexpectedly speaks the truth. So the miracle is essentially about seeing and speaking correctly. This, of course, matches the overall message. Balaam is on his way to view the Children of Israel (seeing) prior to cursing them (speaking).

Then we come to the metaphor of the donkey. The donkey is a humble beast of burden, something that the prophet Zachariah uses to add moral depth to his vision of the Messiah entering Jerusalem on a donkey. Balaam the prophet, riding on top of the donkey, represents the usual order, with the powerful and honoured riding on the back of the humble, poor and meek. But, by first demonstrating Balaam's lack of control and then by threatening to overturn the power hierarchy by dropping to the floor, the donkey "mocks" Balaam.

The donkey represents the simple-minded but faithful and honest aspect of the human personality. Balaam represents the self-deceptive arrogance of that part of the personality that seeks to aggrandize itself through wealth, power and even learning. In order for the story to be effective, it must be comical. It is only through the humiliation of what mussar calls the ego that the lesson of obedience and faithfulness can be learned.

That still leaves us with the question of why the Torah feels the need to tell us this morality fable at this precise time. Perhaps this is something to do with the fact that the story within a series of stories about the challenges of leadership, Korach, the 12 spies, the striking of the rock. Or perhaps it's just because someone in the cutting room thought, "let's leave it in, maybe we can get Eddie Murphy to play the donkey."


More by Rob Rabinowitz

Another voice by Warren Grant

Perhaps G-d's message from this week's parashah relates to good 'old people' management. For the tutor, it's advice on how to lead your apprentice. For the parent, it's advice on how to discipline your child.

G-d spends a lot of time ensuring Balaam will only heap praise over the Israelites rather than curse them, only to watch them go on to 'profane themselves' with Midianite women. Hardly praiseworthy. Subsequently the leaders of the people of Israel are publicly impaled and the Israelite population are cursed with a plague that kills 24,000. Like a betrayed parent, perhaps G-d becomes a little fed up with constantly setting new rules and telling the Israelites what to do. I can hear G-d echoing my tutors and parents saying, 'Well go on then, do what you like! See if I care!' And obviously the parental love here was strong. 'Now don't do that again!'

Maybe this style of laissez faire leadership is what we medicinal practitioners need. Our rules of practice and frameworks of training change almost every week. Though I'm sure strong parents and strict tutors heave us out of medical school and through postgraduate training. I sometimes wonder if we should just be left to our own devices. We've not done anything wrong. Someone just keeps moving the hoops we're so diligently trying to jump through.


More by Warren Grant

Other Divrei Torah on Balak

  • 5767 (Michael Wegier)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Malya Kurzweil)
  • 5769 (Alex Rinsler)
  • 5770 (Leanne Stillerman)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Vered Hollander-Goldfarb)
  • 5771 (Vivi Lachs)
  • 5772 (Richard Elliott Friedman)
  • 5773 (Larry Tabick)
  • 5774 (Daniel Landes)
  • 5774 (Caroline Hagard)