Parsha Balak by David Hartley Mark

This parsha/Torah reading, one of my favorites, is one of three in the Chumash/Pentateuch named after gentiles, the other two being Noah and Jethro—we are uncertain as to whether the latter, Moses’s father-in-law, converted himself to monotheism: the Midrash/Legends say yes, but the text itself is silent on the matter. Since earliest childhood, the dialogue between Bilaam, the purblind pagan prophet, and his clear-sighted donkey, has fascinated me, though it is not too far a stretch of the imagination to conjure up a scenario where an animal shows more sense than its owner. For centuries, dogs and cats have been believed to be in touch with the spiritual world, according to Jewish Bible scholar and anthropologist Theodor Gaster, so why not donkeys, as well?

In the story, after Bilaam’s greed and fear of King Balak persuade him to undertake the mission of cursing the Israelites who are passing through Moab, Balak’s kingdom, he saddles up his donkey and rides off, still of two minds about the matter. So deep in thought is the pagan prophet—or is he a sorcerer?—that he fails to see the angel of God who blocks his path. His donkey sees the seraph, and veers off the road to avoid a collision—only to incite her master’s wrath. The enraged Bilaam, still daydreaming, beats his donkey for going in the wrong direction. After this happens three times, God miraculously grants the donkey the power of speech, and she protests to her master: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Instead of answering her query, the muddleheaded seer replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword, I’d kill you.” And the donkey says, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I ever done this to you before?” To which Bilaam must answer, “No” (Num. 22:28-30; paraphrase mine). At which point he lifts up his eyes and finally sees the angel. This is a beautiful vignette about smart beasts and foolish people—people who are all wrapped up in their own affairs, and unable to see the beauty around them. Unlike us, animals live in the moment: we could learn a lot from them (As I write, our new little rescue Shih Tzu, Kirby, is frantically running up and down the stairs and around the house, trying to find a proper hiding-place to stash a treat-bearing-ball, certain that an army of Shih Tzus will be invading presently to steal it. It hasn’t happened yet, but one never knows.)

Finally, Bilaam is overcome by his awe of the Israelite God, and changes his planned curse to a blessing—which is so pleasing, that part of it, the “Mah Tovu,” has become part of our early-morning liturgy. As the prophet beholds the tents of Israel, agleam in the morning dew like a string of pearls, he compares them to divine sanctuaries. This becomes the verse we recite upon entering the synagogue, and it is both charming and ironic that it was composed by a Moabite who, like Ruth, became a friend of our people. All it took was a talking donkey.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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