Pssst! Have you heard the one about the talking donkey?
Parshat Balak has a bit of a reputation. Between the talking donkey, the two main characters with just-similar-enough names, and its position in the Torah cycle as the mother of all tangents, Balak is hard to pin down. It’s tempting to underestimate its theological import, but as any follower of the Marx Brothers or Sarah Silverman can tell you, just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t serious.
In fact, the parsha offers an odd and penetrating parable about God’s power and the power derived from listening for—and hearing—God’s voice. It tells the tale of Balak, king of Moab, whose revulsion for the Israelites leads him to engage the services of a sorcerer to lay down a curse on them. The sorcerer, Balam, finds himself floundering as to whether or not to take the job. It’s a tempting position, involving travel and riches, and while he probably knows in his kishkes that he should say “no” outright, he doesn’t. After consulting God and getting an answer he doesn’t understand, Balam takes the bait…and takes the gig.
On the journey, there’s a strange encounter involving Balam, a mysterious messenger from God who is trying to stop him from taking the journey, and Balam’s own donkey. The donkey saves Balam from the rogue messenger and Balam continues on his ill-advised errand. Yet as he is ultimately connected to divine will, he cannot do anything other than what God commands him to do. Once he catches a glimpse of the Israelites, Balam tries and fails to curse them. Three times. Ultimately, Balam submits to the Divine plan to bless the Israelites as per the covenant of Abraham.
Over and over again, Balam finds himself in a state of chaos, unsure of his position in the world. When Balak first asks Balam to curse B’nei Yisrael, it is through the language of flattery. In Numbers 22:6, we read: כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר־תְּבָרֵךְ מְבֹרָךְ וַאֲשֶׁר תָּאֹר יוּאָר (for I know that what you bless will be blessed and what you curse will be cursed).
This phrase echoes language from Parshat Lech Lecha, particularly Genesis 12:3, when God says to Abraham, “I will bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you.” In Genesis, God’s rightful power to bless and to curse is part of the covenant with Abraham’s descendants. Here, Balak uses similar wording to cajole Balam into doing his bidding, blurring the boundary between God and humanity, as if to imply that it’s possible for a human’s curse to override divine power. Balak thinks Balam can curse according to human preference. God knows differently, that the power to issue a blessing or curse with enough magnitude to influence human events comes only from above.
As Balam is considering whether to undertake the journey, God comes to him and asks מִי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה עִמָּךְ? Who are these people to you? (Numbers 22:9). Regarding this verse, Rashi points us to Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 5), which posits that God intended to delude Balam into thinking it might be possible to issue the curse without God’s knowing about it. That is, if God is asking sincerely who Balak’s people are, it calls into question God’s omniscience—and Balam, being a magician and all, might have a chance at sneaking the curse in on the down low.
At first, Balam declines the offer, but Balak returns to ask again, upping the ante with more dignitaries and promises of riches. Again Balam asks God what to do. This time God loosens the reins to allow the errand, but puts the pieces in place for Balam’s inner conflict and its ultimate divine resolution.
This, of course, leads us to the cryptic matter of the donkey. After having compromised his integrity by taking on a task that God did not sanction, Balam finds himself facing obstacles he didn’t even realize were there, buffeted by conflicting forces and unsure where to place his trust.
I have pored over this passage many hours, and still it’s unclear to me where the truth lies, and who is on whose side.
These days, that feeling of bewilderment is all too familiar.
Balam was a conjurer, at home in a realm of oddities and strangeness. This moment, steeped in magic as it was, perhaps offered the perfect setting for him to have a realization of God’s power. Yet even though it was God who animated the donkey to talk (Numbers 22:28), and God who opened Balam’s eyes (Numbers 22:31), the matter was not settled.
While Balam was formed in the chaos, I think his clarity came not from the smoke and mirrors of the talking donkey but from an altogether different voice. His moment of lucidity comes in Numbers 23:3, with these two words: וַיֵּלֶךְ שֶׁפִי. The word וַיֵלֶךְ means, “And he went.” The word שֶׁפִי appears only once in the Torah and its meaning is variously translated as “alone” (JPS) or “in silence” (Robert Alter). Either way, it is the quiet and solitude, away from talking donkeys of any species, that allows Balam to tune himself to God’s voice.
It is all too easy for our attention to be drawn in many different directions, in pursuit of what looks like blessing. Parshat Balak teaches us that while we may get sidetracked by the spectacle from time to time, it is ultimately the still, small voice of God that is our source of clarity and of blessing. As in a magician’s illusion, we are misdirected to the talking donkey, while the real magic comes from somewhere else entirely.
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