Look Who’s Talking
Tue, 07/05/2011
Freema Gottlieb
Freema Gottlieb

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 8:12 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 22:2-25:9
Haftarah: Micha 5:6-6:8
Havdalah: 9:19 p.m.

Whoever has attended a writing workshop knows that the first question to crop up inevitably centers on the viewpoint from which a story is told.

This holds true also for parshat Balak which, taken by itself, is essentially a suspenseful, fast-paced short story in which both action and language serve to externalize the unconscious motivations of its protagonist: the pagan prophet Balaam, spiritual hit man for Balak, the Moabite king.

If any single character can be said to embody the true pathos of this parsha it is the talking donkey. According to Pirkei Avot [3:8], the “the mouth of the donkey” had been waiting in the wings for its biblical entrance ever since it was fashioned in the original week of Creation, on the eve of the very first Sabbath, at twilight.

Blurring divisions between animal and human, the story is told in such a way as to appeal to the child in us all. Though medieval Christianity viewed both master and donkey as a diabolical pair, Rabbinic exegesis rather takes its tone from the Angel (blocking Balaam’s path on his way to set a jinx on God’s people), who offers a more compassionate approach to the donkey, victim of her master’s abuse.

Like Odysseus’ nurse, the donkey goes back with her master to his earliest days. However brutalizing the nature of their relationship, she is all the same a portrait of female nurture and selfless devotion: “What wrong have I ever done you that you have hit me these three times?” [Numbers 22:28].

But Balaam, a megalomaniac, tends to regard his partner’s protest, so shockingly articulated in human language, as a breach of the social hierarchies and a bid for comeuppance on the part of a lower species. One remembers the platonic image of a man riding a horse as a human controlling his animal instincts. That is why Talmudic embroideries of this biblical text in Sanhedrin are so apt. According to the Rabbis’ telling, Balak’s princes, gazing after Balaam’s zigzagging progress atop the donkey, satirically inquire if Balaam could indeed be such an important prophet if he cannot afford a horse. A snob as well as a hypocrite, Balaam responds, with an outright lie: his noble steed is in the meadow — the ass he uses strictly for portage. To which she immediately replies in the Bible’s account: “Am I not your very own donkey on whom you have ridden all your life until now? Did I ever behave to you (hahasken hiskanti) as I do now?” [Num. 22:30].

From this, we may pinpoint the essential nature of their relationship. Rashi, also basing his comments on Sanhedrin, highlights a pun in the Hebrew, also denoting feminine nurture of a very physical and all-encompassing kind: Balaam, whose name in Hebrew means “without a people,” secretly enjoyed close physical relations with his donkey but certainly did not want such a scandal to be exposed in public. He is perfectly prepared to silence his love by killing her, when she falls dead anyway. What happened?

According to Jewish law, when such an unnatural coupling has taken place, the lives of both animal and human are forfeit. As Rashi explains, although the animal is blameless, in the final analysis God has more consideration — He melts with compassion, figuratively — for the honor of humans, however deluded, more than for innocent beasts. That is why the donkey, after rebuking her master, had to die.

As her body collapses, God opens Balaam’s eyes to what had been in front of him all along, the adversarial Angel with sword pointing straight at him. For purposes of the story, the Angel’s empathy is all for the donkey. It is not fair! Had it not been for her devotion, the Angel states clearly in the text, the Angel would have killed Balaam and spared her. The implication being that because of her intervention Balaam did the opposite of what he first intended, registers her sacrifice as a noble act.

Balaam’s cruelty to animals and his hatred for Israel are of a piece; likewise, his bombastic self-importance is only a cover for an essential neediness, all of which make for hilarious reading. While piously protesting how even roomfuls of silver and gold would not be enough to make him act contrary to what God desires, he unashamedly hints at the opposite. Ultimately, Balaam could be taken as a figure of comedy if his evil did not constitute such a threat. Leaping from one mountaintop to another, from one altar to the next, he demands sacrifice after sacrifice from Balak in order to lay out his sinister schemes, all the while boasting about how close he is to God — and to God about how important he is to the reigning power, as if God cares! The amazing thing is that He does seem to! Why?

The episode raises some troubling religious questions. Can immoral people receive Divine inspiration? Does the Shechinah rest on unworthy people? Can God be induced by a gifted but perverted prophet to go back on His promise? However morally abhorrent the notion, this story seems to imply that these things are possible.

The rabbis have hinted that there were even ways in which Balaam’s prophetic gifts were superior to those of Moses. The same basic respect and modesty that characterized Moses’ relations with his wife and with fellow humans also informed his relationship with the Divine Presence.

Yet Moses’ moral superiority in respecting the autonomous perspectives of others mirrors that of his Creator. If this makes for the diversity of existence, it also adds up in the parsha to a breathtaking read in which Moses, as alleged creative writer, allowed himself to explore alternative prophetic vistas and possibilities on the dark side.

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement and Partisan Review.

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