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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism. To learn more, visit www.joi.org.
Some people write off this portion as biblical fantasy. In Parashat Balak, Balaam has a conversation with a donkey. A dialogue of this nature seems more appropriate for an animated film than a serious religious text. As a result, many ignore and overlook the implicit message of the portion, as well.
And yet Balaam is not unique–we have no problem with humans speaking to donkeys–or animals of any kind, especially domesticated dogs and cats who have become part of our families. So why are we surprised when the animal answers us?
Perhaps the Torah places specific words in the mouth of the donkey as an interpretation of what is being communicated. The animal is making a statement in the midst of this Torah narrative, and the narrative does not leave it up to us to try to determine what that statement is. Often animals teach us profound lessons–but only when we are willing to listen to their “words.”
In this episode of the evolving saga of the Jewish people, King Balak invites Balaam to curse the Jewish people–an apparently effective military strategy of the ancient world. Before he can do so, however, Balaam is dissuaded. He undergoes a change of heart, and instead, after seeing the beauty of the ancient Jewish people and its tradition, offers a blessing instead.
Message Over Medium
Most will say that the donkey convinced Balaam to transform the intended words of curse into words of praise. But it is not the medium that convinces Balaam; it is the message. As much as we think that clever marketing is the key to making Judaism appealing to those who are ambivalent toward the community, this Torah portion suggests otherwise.
The message is key, not the messenger. God can and does speak to us in myriad ways, and we have to be ready to accept Divine words regardless of how they are delivered. That point is just as cogent today as it once was. No matter how much we manipulate Judaism to do and say what we want, essentially it has to be able to convince people on its own of its ability to provide meaning and direction.
A Lesson From Pinhas’ Failure
Balak heard the words of God and was moved to praise and protect the Jewish people. An enemy turned into a friend; one on the outside became part of the inside.
But later, in the same Torah portion, the Israelites don’t seem to have learned the lesson of Balaam–that friends may be lurking in the guise of “enemies” because we have simply named them as such. The text tells it this way:
“Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. Those who died of the plague numbered 24,000.” (Numbers 25:6-9).
This is held up as a righteous act, for Pinhas is said to be protecting the sanctity and purity of the ancient Israelites. He destroyed both people, and by the symbolism of his act, the potential for future progeny as well. In their reams of commentary, the Rabbis certainly try portray this event as an act of justifiable violence. But nothing can justify Pinhas’ action.
Perhaps Pinhas should have learned from Balaam. He saw the relationship of an Israelite and a Midianite woman as a curse, but he could have turned it into a blessing. The Torah has shown us that we can take lessons even from talking donkeys; every passage has a purpose. We should use the story of Pinhas to gain valuable insights as well. Make this your day to choose a blessing instead of a curse when you respond to those in our midst who have come from Midian and beyond.
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