Telephone Torah Study: How Would a Donkey Read the Bible?
This week’s Torah portion, Balak (Num. 22:2-25:9), includes the humorous story of a talking donkey and one of Torah’s most famous verses: How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:5)
Rabbi Lisa Edwards asks the question “How would a donkey read the Bible?” in her URJ commentary on Balak, ‘What are You Looking At But Not Seeing?’
It’s June – the month famous for weddings and for gay pride parades all over the world. June was chosen for “pride” events to commemorate the June 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village – a significant milestone in the gay liberation movement.
Almost every year at Jerusalem’s Parade for Pride and Tolerance, counter-protesters bring live donkeys (or sometimes cardboard cutouts of donkeys) to symbolize what they label as the “bestial nature” of the pride parade. It’s sad that religious people protest against the advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and pleas for tolerance. The counter-protesters’ choice of “beasts” is ironic: of all the animals, why would Jews well-versed in Torah choose donkeys for this purpose?
It’s certainly ironic, given the intrepid donkey who plays a major role in the story told in this week’s Parashat Balak.
The extraordinary story of the prophet Balaam and his talking she-donkey is a narrative about humans who think they know best, and come to learn otherwise. Balaam is hired by King Balak to curse the people Israel, saying, “since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Attempting to accommodate the King’s request, Balaam heads out on his donkey toward the Israelite camp, but along the way the donkey swerves three times in an attempt to protect Balaam from a threatening angel of God that only the donkey can see. More infuriated each time the donkey stops or swerves, Balaam beats her harshly three times. In a last attempt to protect herself and Balaam, the donkey actually talks to Balaam in his own language, saying “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (22:28). Unrepentant, Balaam replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you!” (22:29).
Here’s a good argument for gun (sword) control.
The donkey then says, “ ‘Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?’ And he [Balaam] answered, ‘No’ ” (22:30). Balaam offers no apology to his devoted donkey nor does he ever express surprise that she speaks his language!
Also, Bracha Yael shared an irreverent “screenplay” on the verbal sparring between the main characters Balak, Balaam and of course, the talking donkey.
Balak, this week’s parashah would make a fabulous movie. It’s got it all, tragedy, comedy, a talking donkey, a sword wielding angel and the greatest director of all time, God. It’s Star Wars, Shrek, and The Last Samurai rolled into one.
Let’s Imagine this Movie…
In a Time Long, Long Ago…
HIGH NOON ON A HILLTOP: Balak the King of Moab paces back and forth in his tent. Balak an inept Darth Vader Wanna Be wrings his hands and frets over his powerful new neighbor the Israelites. He suddenly stops, runs out and shouts an order:
“Quick! Bring me that great prophet Balaam! With him I can defeat my enemy. For whomever he curses is cursed and whomever he blesses is blessed!” [Num. 22:6]
In a Land Far, Far Away…
Balak’s messengers played by off off broadway actors, with ill- fitting clothes from a straight to video space cowboy movie, plead with Balaam.
Torah Passage of the Week
As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme, he said:
Word of Balaam son of Beor,
Word of the man whose eye is true,
Word of one who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:
How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel! (Num. 24:2-5)