“Upstaged by a Donkey”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of Balak, the king of Moab’s attempt to retain the services of Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jewish people, who were rapidly approaching Balak’s territory, and of whom he was in dread fear.

To recruit Balaam, Balak first sends a delegation of elders of Moab and Midian. G-d, however, informs Balaam (Numbers 22:12) that he may not go with them, that he must not curse those people, for they are blessed. Persisting in his attempt to convince Balaam to curse the people, Balak sends an even more distinguished and larger delegation than the first, promising to shower Balaam with untold honor and riches.

G-d again appears to Balaam (Numbers 22:20), this time telling Balaam that he may go with the delegation, but that he must be certain to do whatever G-d commands him to do.

The Torah, in Numbers 22:21, reports that Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his own donkey, underscoring his eagerness to fulfill the mission of cursing the Jewish people, and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. Despite granting Balaam permission to go, G-d was angry with Balaam, whose antipathy for the Jews was apparent. To block Balaam’s journey, the Al-mighty placed an angel of G-d on the road. While Balaam was riding on his donkey, oblivious to the angel, the donkey saw the angel of G-d standing in the way with a drawn sword in his hand. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields. Balaam beat the donkey to try to turn her back on to the proper course.

The angel of G-d then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The donkey, seeing the angel of G-d, pressed herself against the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. So Balaam beat her again. The angel of G-d then positioned himself in a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve left or right. With no room to move, the donkey laid down under Balaam. Frustrated and furious, Balaam beat the donkey with a stick.

G-d opened the donkey’s mouth, who plaintively demanded of Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam responded that the donkey had made a mockery of him, and that if he only had a sword, he would kill the donkey. The donkey then responded to Balaam, “I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day. Have I ever done this to you before?” Balaam answered, “No.”

G-d finally uncovered Balaam’s eyes, enabling Balaam to see the angel of G-d standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand. Balaam bowed down to the ground. The angel of G-d demanded to know why Balaam beat his donkey three times, pointing out to Balaam that the donkey saw the angel but the great prophet, Balaam, did not. Had the donkey not moved away, Balaam would have been dead. Balaam cried out that he has erred, and that he is willing to turn back, if that is G-d’s will.

The angel then told Balaam that he may go with Balak, reiterating G-d’s command that Balaam not say anything, except what G-d allows him to say.

There is a dispute among the commentators about whether the story of Balaam’s speaking donkey is to be taken literally or not. Maimonides, the rationalist, sees the story as a vision or a dream. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says that the donkey did not really speak, but that Balaam was able to understand from the animal’s sounds what the donkey was trying to convey.

Some of the commentators point out that the story is full of irony and even subtle humor. It is not only the fact that the donkey speaks, but what is particularly uncomplimentary to Balaam is that his donkey sees, but the great “prophet,” with his presumed superior spiritual powers, sees absolutely nothing.

The Mishna, in Avot 5:8, declares that at the time of the world’s creation, ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the very first Sabbath: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the mouth of the [Balaam’s] donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the staff, the שָׁמִיר shamir (the worm that cut the rock), the Hebrew alphabet, the instrument that was used to inscribe the tablets, and the tablets themselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that, although these ten items are part of the physical world that were created during the first six days of creation, their purpose is more in keeping with the seventh day, because their function is to train human beings for their moral destiny. These ten items therefore represent a transition from the six days of creation to the Sabbath day.

Rabbi Hirsch explains (Siddur commentary on Ethics of the Fathers) how the mouth of Balaam’s donkey fulfills this mission: “This alludes to the faculty of speech, which was temporarily given to the donkey to humble Balaam, to teach a lesson to that man of brilliant speech, at the moment, when led by base passion and impudent conceit, sought to misuse his human gift of speech to curse a whole nation.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that the confrontation of Balaam with his donkey proves to be Balaam’s undoing, turning Balaam into a laughing stock. Balaam believes he knows how to run the world better than G-d, and yet his donkey sees more clearly than he does. He wants to overpower G-d’s will, and yet his donkey overpowers Balaam’s will. He tries to use his spiritual power to destroy a people, but he has no power over his own jackass. As a result of his raw desire for greatness, he is exposed as powerless and impotent.

Poor Balaam, trying desperately to impress the Moabite delegation with his talents, appears to be inadequate and incompetent. His donkey sees the angel of G-d, but he does not. Balaam, who is supposed to be the great master of words, is speechless, and has to resort to beating his loyal animal into submission. Balaam’s donkey steals the limelight from him, and appears to have a far closer relationship to G-d than the great gentile prophet himself.

After all this embarrassment, one would expect Balaam to show a sign of remorse and humility, but, alas, he does not. His hatred for the Jewish people is so intense and all-consuming that, despite the direct commandment from G-d not to say anything that is not approved by Heaven, Balaam still believes that he can outwit G-d, and curse the Jewish people.

Fortunately, Balaam does not succeed.

Poor Balaam, upstaged by his own donkey.

May you be blessed.