Table for Five: Balak

How do you access your inner donkey when your inner Balaam gets out of control?
July 14, 2022

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

– Num. 22:28

Batsheva Frankel
Education consultant at New Lens Ed, host of Overthrowing Education podcast

According to the Slonimer Rebbe there are two main elements to living as a Jew – emunah (faith) and kedusha (holiness). Balaam’s goal was to break the connection between the Children of Israel and G-D by trying to destroy our faith and holiness. 

These last few years have been so challenging. In addition to the world’s sufferings, we Jews have watched antisemitism grow like weeds everywhere. This often attacks our emunah. What does G-D want from us? How did we get to this divisive place? What is wrong with this world? And on and on. As Jews turn on each other, is our holiness compromised? 

How in this trying time do we increase our emunah and kedusha levels? It’s all about the donkey! The donkey is like our yetzer tov (good inclination); Balaam is like our yetzer hara (evil inclination). Our “Balaam” leads us to narrow places. Our “Donkey” sees and senses the danger and evil ahead. The donkey tries to lead in the right direction and avoid evil, but the evil inclination is strong and often “beats” the good inclination. Finally, the Donkey (aka yetzer tov), asserts itself (in one of the coolest miracles in the Torah!), “Why are you doing this to me? Can’t you see the danger? Then G-D opens Balaam’s eyes so he can see the danger. We, too, have to assert our donkey, allow our inner-Balaam to see, seek out positive ways, and move towards blessings.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff
Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

Balaam was hired to curse an entire nation. He was assumed to have the capacity to use the power of speech to decimate a massive people. And yet when it came to his own donkey, he resorted to physical violence! 

He highlights his helplessness by exclaiming, “if only I had a sword, I’d kill you!” Our sages (Tanchuma, 9) depict how absurd Balaam looked in the eyes of his entourage of noblemen – the man hired to utterly destroy a nation was rendered impotent by a mere donkey. The Talmud similarly remarks, “could Balaam really be described as ‘knowing the thoughts of the Most High’ when he could hardly divine the motivations of his own donkey?!” 

That Talmud tells us that Balaam did not actually have great knowledge of God’s thoughts, but he was skilled at inciting God’s anger upon others. One who can understand other beings is a compassionate person, for even when confronted with the shortcomings of others, he can see the broader picture and find it in his heart to look at them kindly. This was not the case for Balaam. Living in a world of rhetoric and words, his impact was in painting a picture completely unsympathetic and unbending. He exposed the flaws of others, and held them up to God, asking for retribution. Rhetoric can destroy. It can tear a nation apart. Pay no heed to voices proclaiming the evil of those to your left or right. 

Ben Elterman
Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at Mitzvahspeeches.com

Balaam’s response to his donkey’s spontaneous argument was, “If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you now.” According to the Midrash, Balaam’s donkey countered, “You cannot kill me without a sword, yet you are going to wipe out the Jewish nation with only words?” 

Depending on which commentary you read, his donkey’s speech may or may not have been shocking to Balaam. However, to the men from Moav that accompanied them, it was certainly a miracle. And from it, they understood the absurdity the donkey was pointing out; Balaam was a fraud and his promised curses weren’t going to work. 

I think the point Torah is making is that a fraud may be able to assume a position of honor for a while. But as the adage goes, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Sooner or later, the seemingly insignificant details are going to add up. The Midrashic argument between Balaam and the donkey continues (the details of which I will let you look up for yourself). The point is, the donkey refutes each of Balaam’s rationalizations with a more embarrassing exposure. 

Balaam should have quit then and there. But he was as stubborn as the donkey he rode and ended up proving he was a fraud in front of an even larger audience by failing to perform his hired task.

Nina Litvak

The Midrash teaches that Balaam’s donkey talks to show her master that “the tongue and mouth (speech) are entirely in God’s hands.” It is a warning to Balaam that his attempts to curse the Jews will fail. Unlike the Jewish prophet Moses, the gentile prophet Balaam is arrogant, crediting himself for prophecy rather than God. Being rebuked by his own donkey is a humbling experience that empties Balaam of ego so that he can transmit God’s message. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that this bizarre episode is actually a preparation for the Messianic Age, when “the earth shall be filled with awe for the glory of the Lord as water covers the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). Just as the arch Jew-hater Balaam blesses the Jews, so too will all creation acknowledge us as God’s messengers.

Only twice in the Torah does a non-human animal speak: the serpent who tempts Eve, and Balaam’s donkey. In neither case does the animal benefit; they don’t use their new power of speech to plead for food or safety. Rather, God places the words in their mouth, just as God provides humans with the ability to speak. As Sforno points out, before praying we ask “O Lord please open my lips.” If the words God puts into the mouth of a dumb animal are so powerful, how much more powerful are words that God puts into our human lips. Imagine what we can accomplish if God opens our lips. And all we have to do is ask.

Rabbi Jason Weiner

Did a she-donkey actually speak in human words to Balaam, or is there a deeper message here? Some point out that the root of the Hebrew word for speaking, daber, never appears in relation to this donkey. 

Furthermore, it seems to me that this episode describes a much larger issue concerning the Divine response to suffering and injustice. What did this simple she-donkey do to deserve mistreatment? Nothing. And when such injustice occurs, God can endow the victim with increased abilities to overcome the oppressor. 

As King Solomon wisely states, “God seeks those who are pursued” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). In light of this Jewish theological foundation, “The Lord opened the mouth…” can be understood to mean that Balaam’s wicked behavior was an affront to God, who instructs us to interact at all times in a kind and compassionate manner. Such an affront automatically initiates a response from God. The Torah reflects this fundamental reality by suggesting that the she-donkey cried out against Balaam’s cruelty, so that her suffering, and this injustice, became obvious even to Balaam. 

That cry is expressed every time injustice occurs. Our challenge today is to be sensitive and listen carefully for the cries of the oppressed, whenever and wherever they might be expressed, and respond. By doing so, we will be heeding God’s continuing call to action against cruelty and injustice. 

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