By Rabbi Charles Feinberg
This week’s Torah portion is Balak, Numbers 22:2 – 25:9.
There was once a king of Moab who saw the Israelites sweep through the wilderness overcoming Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Fearful that the Israelites would overwhelm him and his fellow tribes, Balak enlists the support of a well-known sorcerer and diviner, Bilaam ben Be’or. Balak is willing to pay whatever it takes to hire Bilaam to put a hex on the Israelites slowing their advance through the wilderness. Bilaam is interested but says he needs to check with the Lord first. The Lord tells Bilaam not to go.
Bilaam then refuses to go with the delegation sent to invite him for this special mission. The delegation interprets Bilaam’s refusal as meaning that the fee is not high enough. They begin to negotiate a deal. Bilaam keeps telling the delegation that he cannot transgress or change the word of God one way or the other.
“Whatever God puts in my mouth, I have to say,” he says.
On the way to Moab, Bilaam’s ass begins to act unusually. First, it strays from the road and wanders through a field. Bilaam hits the ass to direct it back to the road. Next, the ass sees the angel of the Lord standing in the middle of the road. The ass veers off the road pressing Bilaam’s foot into the stone fence that lines the road. Bilaam continues to strike the ass with his staff.
Finally, the angel of the Lord stands in the road, preventing the ass from moving forward. So, the ass sits down in front of the angel of the Lord. Furious, Bilaam strikes the ass with his staff.
The Torah says that God opens the mouth of the ass. The ass says to Bilaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me three times.” Bilaam says to the ass, “You have played me. If there were a sword in my hand, I would kill you!” The ass calmly retorts, “Aren’t I your ass whom you have ridden for some time? Have I ever put you in danger before?”
Then the Lord opens Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel standing before him holding a drawn sword.
Who acts like an ass in this story? Clearly it is Bilaam. Why does Bilaam play the role of the ass? Because Bilaam cannot see the angel of the Lord. In the story, the she ass plays the compassionate and caring adult. The she ass reminds Bilaam how faithful and loyal she has been to him. She reminds him that she has kept him out of danger as long as they have known each other.
Clearly the story is a parable. Bilaam gets in trouble because he cannot see what an old ass can see. He cannot see the angel of the Lord.
The story teaches us what it means to act like an ass. To act like an ass means not to be able to see something about ourselves that is obvious even to a she ass. Like Bilaam, we become blind and deaf to the consequences of our words and actions. Bilaam is blind to the consequences of fulfilling the mission of cursing the Israelites. He may be pleasing his masters, but he has failed to read or understand God at all. God sends the ass as a gift to Bilaam to reveal to him exactly what is on God’s mind.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights in Washington.