Parshat Balak: Second Chances
(This dvar Torah will appear in the Washington Jewish Week on July 3, 2014)
In this week’s parsha we meet two of the more interesting characters in the Tanach, Balaam and his donkey. We meet Balaam son of Peor, a non-Jewish prophet, in the beginning of chapter 22. Balak, King of the Moabites, reaches out to Balaam for help in cursing the Israelites. We meet Balaam’s donkey several verses later in Numbers 22:21: “Va’ yakom Balaam ba’boker, vayachavosh at atono…” “In the morning Balaam arose, and saddled his she-donkey….”
This sentence is worth delving into because of its use of the expressions “arose” (va’ yakom) and “in the morning” (ba’boker) in the same sentence. It seems redundant to use both expressions when just “arose” would do. Also, in biblical times, the early rising and saddling of one’s own animal was quite unusual for men of stature, the norm was to have servants carry out menial tasks. What is this verse trying to tell us?
Talmud brings in a verse from Genesis (22:3) to help us understand. The verse states that, “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey...” Again we see the seeming redundancy of wording - rising early and in the morning. The Sages explained that Abraham rose early in his haste to perform a commandment (going to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac) and he saddled his own donkey because “Love [of God] disregards the rule of dignified conduct.” (Pesachim 4a, BR 55:8).
Interestingly, the rabbis reacted quite differently to Balaam and noted that he shouldn’t try to pattern himself after the righteous Abraham. Rashi wrote, “From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard of dignified conduct, for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you…” (Mid. Tanchuma Balak 8). Balaam may act as if he were rushing to do God’s will, but he knew that he was doing something wrong in going with the Moabite dignitaries. This is where Balaam’s donkey comes in.
Balaam’s donkey is an intriguing character. She not only talks, but she speaks words of wisdom and in doing so becomes the hero of our parsha. The Torah utilizes one of the least intelligent of animals to out maneuver the wisest of men. Where did this ability to speak and reason come from? To show the uniqueness of this animal, we are taught in Pirke Avot 5:9 that ten things were created at twilight between the end of the sixth day of Creation and Shabbat eve. Many of these are mystical items have seemingly magical properties and among these are the mouth of Balaam's donkey. Surely a donkey’s mouth created at this mystical time was intended for a specific purpose.
There is one last tale that needs to be told. There is a midrash that tells us that Balaam was one of three advisors to Pharaoh at the time our ancestors were slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh had a bad dream and called on advisors to help him interpret it. Balaam was one of those advisors. Before he went to advise Pharaoh, our forefather Jacob gave this wondrous donkey as a gift to Balaam. The purpose of the gift was to convince Balaam not to give evil counsel to Pharaoh concerning Jacob’s children. When the time came, Balaam either advised Pharaoh to throw all Israelite male children into the Nile (Sanhedrin 106a) or to force the Israelites to make bricks (Midrash Aggada Numbers 22:21). In this midrash, it is clear that Jacob’s gift did not do the trick. The donkey might have been able to influence Balaam but we will never know for she kept silent; she did not speak and the Israelites were not spared.
This week’s parsha seems to bring the story of Balaam and his donkey full circle. Both Balaam and his donkey are involved with Jacob and the Israelites in Egypt. As Balaam actively works to bring evil upon the Israelites, the donkey passively and quietly stands by and says nothing. Fast forward to our parsha and both Balaam and the donkey have a chance to redeem themselves. Balaam was known as a prophet with a connection to God; the donkey’s mouth itself was specially created by God. Although Balaam actively tried to continue on his path to bring evil upon the Israelites, the donkey chose to use this opportunity to redeem herself. She spoke up, used words of wisdom and logic, and tried to save both Balaam and the Israelites.
Second chances are rare and precious gifts. When we are presented with the gift of a second chance, we have to decide if we will be like the wise donkey and take advantage of the opportunity or the evil Balaam and let it all slip away.
Food for Thought:
Wisdom often comes to us from the most surprising places. Can you think of a time when you were taken off guard by the source of a piece of wisdom or good advice? Did you ever disregard good advice because of its source?
Take a look at the parsha, particularly chapter 22, verses 21-33. What do you think of the relationship between Balaam and his donkey? If you have a pet, does this remind you in any way of the relationship that you have with your animal? What do you think your animal would say if it could speak?
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memories of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Sha'ar and Naftali Frankel, the three teens who were kidnapped while on their way home from school in Gush Etzion and whose bodies were found yesterday. May their memories be for a blessing.